If it bleeds, it leads as the old news adage goes. What if it doesn’t bleed? What if a crime simply scares an entire community and leaves the citizens of a neighborhood afraid every time they walk home?
For too long, Washington, D.C.’s traditional media outlets have been covering crime by the same bloody cliché. If nobody is killed, or horrifically assaulted, the major news outlets will turn to the more violent story. Local blogs have filled the gap, providing the crime coverage missing in the Washington Post, Washington Times, and local television stations.
The nation’s capital is home to nearly 600,000 people. No citizen would expect the major news outlets to cover every crime in 68 square miles of city. But it’s also a city of neighborhoods, each with a unique character and a community that remembers the 1990’s, when D.C. was the murder capital of the nation. The citizens of those neighborhoods don’t buy the news adage, they want to know when they’re in danger.
“Any time a gun is used, that’s a threshold I use,” said Dan Silverman, who runs the Prince of Petworth blog in Northwest Washington, D.C. “That scares the shit out of me. That’s unacceptable to me, that’s unacceptable to my neighbors, and it’s unacceptable to my community.”
Silverman, who earned a master’s degree in international affairs at American University, worked briefly for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimban. He insists that he is not a journalist. At Asahi Shimban, Silverman rifled through documents and worked the community to get information before handing it over to a reporter who wrote the stories. Silverman uses that same tenacity as a full-time blogger—scouring nearly every inch of the city to report stories on crime—and real estate, restaurants, even pretty doors—that interest the neighborhood.
“I’m out there all the time,” Silverman said. “I’m covering more ground than anybody in the city, but that will only get you so far. Without the community, it would be a mere fraction of the information.”
Build Trust in the Community
When Silverman walks into Columbia Heights Coffee, blocks from his home in the Northwest D.C. neighborhood of Petworth, the owner greets him with a warm smile. She points to a refrigerator case with eight flavors of gelato. “When did you get that?,” Silverman asks. “I thought I was just in year a couple weeks ago.”
It was a brief, casual exchange that Silverman says is at the heart of his crime coverage.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a blogger or working for the Washington Post or TBD, if you don’t get to know people and gain the trust of people—whether it’s the community or the police department—then they’re not going to give you information,” Silverman said.
Elizabeth Festa, one of a more than 10 writers covering the Capitol Hill area for the blog, The Hill is Home, agrees.
In an email, Festa said the Hill is Home writers are “walking, biking or moseying about the neighborhood.”
It is easier for us than for a big media behemoth to be nimble, to be at a location quickly, and to hear from neighbors and business owners what is going on and how they are affected.”
Know your community. It’s a decidedly low-tech answer to a media issue in the digital age. Two recent crimes shed light on how bloggers use digital skills and boots on the ground to beat big media outlets to a story.
A Tale of Two Crimes
On November 29, a 29-year old woman was punched in the face as she walked from the Harris Teeter grocery store across from the Potomac Avenue Metro station on Capitol Hill. The unprovoked attack by a teenage male left the victim hospitalized with a broken jaw.
Two similar attacks occurred within the next two days. Both involved groups of teenagers attacking citizens unprovoked. Ward 6 councilman Tommy Wells and MPD chief Cathy Lanier weighed in on the crimes and a community meeting was scheduled to discuss the fear and outrage in the community.
None of the local media—with the exception of Fox 5—covered the crimes.
“I was really annoyed that the Post wasn’t covering it at all,” said Monica Pogula, a Capitol Hill resident who regularly shops at the Harris Teeter. “When somebody is running around punching people unprovoked, that’s something I’m concerned about and something I should know about.”
Concerned for her safety, Pogula says she searched the Internet for more information and only the Hill is Home provided the additional information she was hoping to find.
Festa, who covered the crimes for the Hill is Home, understood why Pogula and others in the neighborhood were scared—something the major news outlets seemed to miss.
“This wasn’t in a dark alley at night with illicit substances in play,” Festa wrote in her email. “So, it was unexpected. We expect alleys to be dangerous, not a route home from a major grocery store on a Sunday afternoon.”
Festa said she used a few neighborhood public and private listservs to gather information and gauge community sentiment:
The Hill is Home also has a Twitter feed, which the bloggers use regularly to interact with the community.
Silverman uses similar digital resources to assist in his coverage of crime, including a Twitter feed, listservs, emails from readers, and comments on his blog. When a drunk driver crashed through the Keren Restaurant and killed a pedestrian at 18th Street and Florida Avenue in Adams Morgan, Silverman received emails and tweets from readers in minutes.
He was on the scene before shortly after emergency vehicles and long before any news outlets arrived.
Can Behemoths Adapt?
Larger media outlets will never be as nimble as local or hyperlocal blogs unless they recognize the successes of the bloggers. Even among the new and digital media evangelists, hyperlocal blogs are treated as trivial chroniclers.
“Hyperlocal sites can focus on very specialized topics—stories and issues of interest only to people in a very limited area,” James C. Foust writes in his book “Online Journalism: Principles and Practices of News for the Web” “So, for example, school board meetings, restaurant menus, community group meetings and garage sales can receive prominent coverage.”
Perhaps Foust was speaking mainly of rural hyperlocal blogs, but many Capitol Hill residents would say a string of violent crimes are a far cry from a garage sale.
All of the tools available to bloggers are also available to journalists at the Washington Post. Anyone can start a Twitter feed, build a community, read the listservs, and walk the streets talking to citizens.
Silverman is skeptical about the Washington Post, or other large outlets, truly changing.
“If you’re a 50 or 60-year old Post reporter who hasn’t walked the beat in 20 years, how are you going to foster community?” Silverman ponders. “By saying, ‘oh, I have a Twitter feed?’ That’s going to foster community? I don’t think so.”
Hyperlocal blogs in the District have changed readers’ expectations. They have done the journalistic legwork, built the relationships in the neighborhood, and can report what is interest to the community because they are the community. Blogs like Prince of Petworth, The Hill is Home, or Borderstan in the Dupont Circle and U Street area are covering crime in nearly every inch of the city.
The major news outlets have two options: follow the local blog model of crime coverage or begin to incorporate the street-level, tech savvy work of bloggers into their outlets.
If they fail to adapt, the community will continue to turn to blogs for crime reporting that tells them what’s happening in the city before blood is shed.