The Story Behind Every Murder in Los Angeles

On average there are up to two killings a day in Los Angeles County. And all of them are faithfully reported in a grim Los Angeles Times blog The Homicide Report.

I visited recently with the Homicide Report’s main staff writer, Nicole Santa Cruz. Although she’s a reporter, her station is appropriately located within the data desk sector at the Times. While Cruz reports each murder, she is surrounded by web producers and data specialists who package that reporting into dynamic and interactive digital content.

On this morning, no surprise, she is busy tracking down another murder. The news was delivered to her by an advisory e-mail from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of her many sources. She also scours periodic data dumps from police departments and the coroner’s office.

Santa Cruz has been working on the Homicide Report for the past two years. “I think people really care about it. The people who it really impacts are super grateful it exists,” says Santa Cruz, pictured at her desk, below.

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She keeps a master spread sheet of every killing in the county that includes basic information such as victim names, coroner case identification number, and the location and time of each murder. In addition to the basic cataloging, Santa Cruz or someone from a team of reporter trainees at the Times aims to write a full story about every murder. That means tracking down family members, investigators, medical examiners, street sources and anyone else who can shed light on how yet another luckless person in Los Angeles County met with fatal violence.

The Homicide Report is a blog that takes full advantage of its digital format. In addition to posts about each murder, there are digital extras such as a searchable database and an interactive map showing every homicide in the past 12 months. That’s 550 and counting.

The blog, which started in 2007, is more than a public service. It also generates enterprise stories.

Sometimes Santa Cruz will step back from daily reporting to examine patterns within all the data collected by the Times. That often yields important trend stories on homicides in the county.

Last year, for example, she noticed that victims were skewing older. So she wrote about this trend in a Report post.  She also wrote a story about the tiny community of South Vermont Avenue when she noticed from map data that this was the deadliest place to live in the county. The report, she said, came as a surprise to even some of the sheriff’s deputies who patrolled there.

“What’s really cool about this database is that it combines the best of old school reporting with the tools of what we now have at our disposal,” she says.

The Joys and Perils of the Live Broadcast

In a corner section of the main editorial floor at the L.A.Times is a mini television studio. It’s surprising to come across it because so much of the editorial office space still feels like a print-only operation. But sectors of the cavernous building are devoted to video production. The Times embeds a lot of video on story pages, has a section devoted to video on its main site, and has a strong presence on video outlets such as YouTube.

The studio is used for live or recorded interviews on the small set, which features three cameras, a bank of lights, a small table and a backdrop featuring the Times logo and brand signage. Everything is ready to go this Monday morning with a live online broadcast of a chat between Outlander actor Sam Heughan and entertainment reporter Yvonne Villarreal. Well, almost ready.

Heughan, who will be appearing via Skype, is late connecting with the Times team and the live interview will have to be delayed. The live chat has been widely promoted on Times social media and its online site, so this sets off a small panic as the team scrambles to get the word out to the many Outlander fans expected to tune in to the live event. Tweets are rushed out, headlines are changed, and the waiting audience is told to stay put for 30 more minutes.

On mornings like this, the Times seems more like a broadcast network than a media company deeply rooted in print.

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Heughan finally connects on Skype and the live broadcast begins 30 minutes late. In the end it’s a success as the actor is engaged and personable. While Villarreal is doing the on-camera interview, Times web producer Tracy Brown is off to the side working her smart phone and busily tweeting out key moments from the interviewThere is a heavy social media component for this broadcast.

The live broadcast was facilitated using the Google Plus feature of Hangouts on Air. This seems like a convenient tool for student journalists to use to produce a live broadcast.

The Times also got the audience involved. Smart. They created a hashtag before the event so interested viewers could submit questions to ask the guest when the interview started. Villarreal used a few audience questions during the interview, so this was audience engagement in action. When you integrate the live broadcast with your social media and digital product, as the Times does, you have a great way to boost page views and increase an audience.

A Careful Rush to Judgement

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It’s 7 a.m. on Thursday, June 18. Seen above, Times editors are gathered in a semi-circle around the Real Time news desk area for the daily ritual of the morning meeting to talk about stories that are in the works. It’s a no-brainer for the main breaking news coverage today: The killing of nine AME church members in Charleston, S.C. by 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

This has already been a busy week for breaking news coverage for the Times. Just two days earlier the Times mobilized for extensive coverage of the tragic balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA that killed six young students.

The meeting lasted about 25 minutes, and about half that time was devoted to planning coverage of the church shootings for the digital product. At the time of the meeting the suspect had not been confirmed by officials, but rumors and a photo of a possible suspect were being circulated on social media and the web. Editors wanted this information out quickly, but also wanted it confirmed before publishing it.

Editors brought up the issue of how South Carolina continues to fly the Confederate flag, an aspect of this story that was being talked about on social media.

“It’s a black church and white gunman,” one editor said. “We can’t ignore the cultural implications of this.” This aspect of the story was then smartly added to the coverage mix.

The Times online coverage was impressive, and continually updated throughout the day. They had reporters and photographers on scene and reporters working the story remotely from Los Angeles and other bureaus. This was a thoughtful approach to a fast-breaking story of national importance.

I was given a small piece of this coverage and asked to interview local AME church leaders for a short video. I called several AME churches close to the Times office and left messages asking if anyone was available to comment. Then I headed out with my camera and equipment to the First AME church where I found one church official available for an interview. Also on scene was a reporter for KCAL 9 along with her camera operator.

“I’m not used to seeing newspaper people with video cameras,” the reporter remarked. The AME official was also skeptical, and asked to see my Times identification badge before he would do an interview on camera.

“I’m used to dealing with the Times in print,” he said.

I completed the short interview and then got a call back from one of the messages I had left earlier. I was told that several AME pastors were meeting soon at the Ward AME church about a five-minute drive from where I was now. I went over there and recorded several interviews with church leaders. I even received bonus coverage with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck showed up to assure church leaders of their safety, and I recorded his brief address.

I returned to the Times newsroom to edit and later post the video above.

Deadlines and the Digital First World

Deadlines have always been a key part of journalism. Saying this makes me sound a little like Captain Obvious.

Captain Obvious

It’s been clear for some time that deadline cycles for journalism have changed dramatically with the push for digital first content. The once-daily print and broadcast deadlines of old seem downright leisurely by today’s digital first, 24/7 practices. Again, thank you Captain Obvious.

Knowing all this is one thing. Experiencing it in the field is quite another, as I found out at the end of my second week of the Back in the Newsroom Fellowship.  I covered a press conference for the Times concerning a music producer who went missing after meeting with a client in Compton. I packed up my video camera and equipment and arrived about a half hour before the conference, which gave me the opportunity to interview both parents of the missing producer.

Had this been a more prominent story I would have been expected to immediately tweet out quotes from these interviews, even before the press conference began. I would also be expected to cut a few sound bites together and send out a video of these preliminary interviews using a cell phone app.

This short clip above, taken with my cell phone, gives you an idea of the scene at the conference. I shot most of it with my digital camera. I then returned to the newsroom to capture the footage and write up a text story that was placed in the pipeline to be edited for online. Then I used Final Cut to edit the video quickly, using simple titles and stringing together sound bites with the use of cutaway shots to produce a 90-second video which told the story in a digital-first, quick way. This was no time to craft a mini-documentary.

I was finished with both the story and video within a couple of hours of the press conference ending. The story and video were posted in the L.A. Now blog around 7 p.m.

Even though I had practiced with the video editing app on my phone last week, I was not prepared to use it in the field under this deadline pressure. This will take more practice. Had this been a more important breaking story, I would not have had the luxury of using a laptop program such as Final Cut to do the edit. This week my thumbs will get a workout as I practice even more with the mobile video editing apps.

Digital newsrooms operate using teams. This is a strategy I want to apply to my media production class at Santa Monica College. Fast-paced planning on stories is essential, and different sectors of the newsroom, from the social media crew to web designers, from editors to reporters, work together to maximize a story’s digital impact.

Reporters in a digital first newsroom have a lot of things on their mind, so reporting is more complicated now than ever. Captain Obvious, you are so right. Maybe that’s why so many mid-career reporters have chosen to take buyouts or leave the profession. They just don’t want the hassle of learning all these new digital tricks.

You have to feel comfortable with mobile apps and social media. And you have to be aware of how best to use your content over multiple platforms, including social media, a blog, online and finally in print. And you are never off deadline, unlike this happy guy from an old-time commercial:

Ezell Ford Hearing and Digital First

Last August 11, two Los Angeles police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Ezell Ford. The shooting happened two days after the killing in Ferguson, Missouri of a black teen by a white police officer.  Similar cases around the country have made the issue of deadly force by police a hot-button topic widely covered by the media.

That’s why yesterday at the Times was an extraordinary day for my fellowship as I witnessed the “Digital First” mentality of the the news organization as it covered the Los Angeles Police Commission hearing into Ezell Ford’s killing by police. The hearing was held at police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, one block from the Times office.  There were several staff photographers and reporters on scene. Updates were sent to the L.A. Now blog, which included texts, photos and an impressive Twitter feed that reported up-to-the-minute news from the scene, including photos.

I noticed Times reporter Marisa Gerber outside tweeting about protester interactions with police.  Kate Mather was getting quotes and updates from inside the hearing room. There were important updates throughout the morning.  At one point protesters inside the hearing began chanting loudly and became so disruptive that commissioners left the hearing room. One protester outside was also temporarily arrested.azteca interview

To the right you can see a reporter from Azteca America interviewing a protester outside police headquarters as the hearings were held.

I jumped into the coverage and used my Times employee badge to gain access to the hearing room. I  shot video with my cell phone to experiment with using a mobile device to report a story. I returned to the newsroom and worked with the video editor to edit the footage using the app Videolicious. The Times prefers using this app for quick-hit videos from the field, and I’ve enjoying experimenting with it.

My video of Ezell Ford hearing

Since I had several clips from scenes inside and outside of police headquarters, I found the app limiting to creating a more detailed video story. The editor suggested that I try the iMovie app on my phone. This was more successful and I produced a one-minute video of my clips that told a story of the morning. I learned a lot from doing this! I will definitely aim to have students use cell phone video apps in my multimedia and media production classes.

In the afternoon I returned to the hearing room as the assembled media awaited the decision by the police commission. It was interesting to note the large number of local broadcast crews who were present.meda awaits ezell

I chatted for a bit with Times photographer Ifran Khan. He has a long background in still photography but has embraced video as well. When shooting stills he uses a professional camera, but when doing video he uses his iPhone. It can be daunting for a news photographer to decide when to shoot stills or video when covering a breaking story such as this one. Khan managed to successfully do both as his photos and video clips were published.

Khan clearly enjoys making short videos using Videolicious. He explained that interview subjects often are more relaxed when he shoots video using his cell phone, so he can get them to be more natural on camera and get a better story. khan waits to shootTo the left you can see Khan with his iPhone prepared to shoot video when the commissioners returned to the hearing room to announce their decision.

After the hearing ended I took all my footage from the day and used my laptop with Final Cut to edit a 90-second video story and sent it to the video editor around 8:30 p.m. Looking forward to hearing his comments today.

Here is the Times’ cover print story with Khan’s photos.

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Donuts and Digital Focus

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Walking into the Times building from the First Street entrance you encounter an impressive statue of a menacing eagle. It was designed by Gutson Borglum, sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, and it has a hallowed place in L.A. Times history. The eagle once perched on the roof of three different Times buildings before being moved into the lobby. A print representation of the eagle adorned the Times masthead for decades. It’s a symbol of courage and strength and a source of motivation as editorial workers step into the elevators and start their day working for a free press.

donutsAs another source of strength, Times employees are all about the doughnuts and cake, which seem to appear out of nowhere at different times during the day. This being a newsroom, news of the treats spreads fast, and you have to be quick to grab your share. And speaking of which, today was National Doughnut Day, and during the morning editorial meeting it appears that the Times coverage of this special event was doing quite well with the digital audiences.

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As another special treat today, the interns and I were invited to meet with Henry Chu, a longtime foreign correspondent with the Times, who just completed a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University. Chu traced his history at the paper, a career that began in 1990 when he was selected for the Times’  Metpro program, designed to train young journalists and increase diversity in newsrooms. He was hired straight from that two-year program to work at the paper’s San Fernando Valley edition and then became a foreign correspondent in 1998. He’s worked in Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi and currently London. He’s spending a few days at the Times office for some digital training, getting tips from the social media team on how to build a social audience and use Twitter as a reporting tool. He said that the best preparation for a career as a foreign correspondent is a good liberal arts education because it gives you the “critical and analytical framework” to view stories.

Chu mentioned that he also received training this week on using the mobile video editing app Videolicious, a program I also received some instruction on during my first week from video editor Robert Meeks of the Times. It’s for fast, in-the-field video editing that you record with your cell phone. I practiced with it to create a 30-second video on the Grand Central Market, so now I feel ready to use it on a story if called upon. I will be heading out to produce a short video for a story on Monday.

I also contributed to one of the Times’ many subscription newsletters, a growing area of focus for the media company. The Times editors feel that these newsletters, which arrive daily in the form of e-mail, are a great way to expand their market to new audiences. They are basically curated lists of links to stories of interest on a variety of topics, including breaking news, politics, entertainment and travel. I was asked to contribute some ending bright items to the Essential California Newsletter. Here is my first one.  All in all, a very exciting and interesting first week!

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First Day at LA Times

The clanging of the bell signaling the opening of the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, and a strong latte from G&B coffee, jolted me awake this morning. I am downtown to learn about how modern digital newsrooms are run, of course, but that can wait as I take in the modernized Grand Central market, which has added hip new spots such as Eggslut. The egg-happy eatery already had hungry diners chowing away at its counter as I passed through the market to Broadway Avenue. Then it was over to Spring Street and the Los Angeles Times headquarters.

Strong latte to start the day.

Five other interns are starting this morning and I’m grouped with them as a “visiting fellow,” although my prime intern days were well before this crew was even born. They are all still in college.

We are greeted by Tracy Boucher of the Times and whisked upstairs. Right into the thick of things, it seems. It’s the morning budget meeting where top editorial staffers, led by editor Davan Maharaj, will assess the day’s stories and how to play them on the company’s many digital and print platforms.

We are introduced to the editors before the meeting starts. The interns are obviously going to be producing content this summer, but my role as a visiting fellow is more ambiguous. “Can we put him to work while he’s here?” Maharaj asks Boucher.

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He’s joking but maybe not. The Times, like many newsrooms, could certainly use the help after years of staff downsizing. The need is even more critical during summer months when remaining staffers are apt to be vacationing.

And there’s certainly plenty of news to cover for the the Los Angeles Times.

Generating considerable buzz at the morning meeting was the just-released Vanity Fair cover story on Bruce Jenner’s transformation to a woman. Editors mapped out several responsive stories including one about local reaction from the transgender community.

The Times, like most digital companies, monitors its audience, and editors took note of which of their stories were generating digital noise. Two stories of note were the hard-hitting piece on  Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk and another one about a Northern California woman donating an old Mac computer to a Silicon Valley recycling center that was actually a valuable piece of computer history worth close to $200,000

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We toured the two main newsroom floors and lobby area, glimpsing two relics of a pre-digitial past, including the paper-based clip files in the library, on the left,  and the bank of abandoned pay telephones booths in the entrance way.

You can tell the Times is firmly in the digital age though, with a converged newsroom with print, online and video productions in full swing, and teams of staffers devoted to areas such as interactive web graphics, social media engagement and data journalism. Looks like I’ll be in good hands this summer.

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