Sean Connelley and Katy Newton, two of the journalists behind the Oakland Tribune’s Not Just A Number package I wrote about yesterday, were kind enough to take a few minutes of their time today to answer a few questions by e-mail.
I wanted to know what it was like to build something on this scale, over months, with the goal of telling the stories behind Oakland’s homicide statistics. Katy (KN) answered most of the questions, with Sean (SC) chiming in on one point.
II: How long did all this take to develop?
KN: We started kicking the idea around in July. Sean would come home and say the homicides are at 54, 67, 83 etc… We found ourselves counting down the homicides and forgetting that we were talking about human lives. That’s really how the project began.
We wanted to discover who was dying. To humanize the problem. It took a lot of effort to contact the families. Just gaining the trust of the community took three months. People felt a bit betrayed by the media.
Often when homicides are reported, the main source for describing who the victim is comes from police records. This was most upsetting for the families, as well as the issue of police mug shots being used in the old homicide maps.
When the families heard that the Tribune was making the effort to change their policy on the police mug shots, doors opened up.
We really have to thank Marilyn Washington Harris from the Khadafy Foundation for her help.
Kathleen [Kirkwood, Associate Editor for Online News in Oakland] put us in touch with her. She lost her son Khadafy in 2004. Now she spends her time helping the families through the grieving process. She does it all on her own. She is amazing.
Anyway, we called her in September and she agreed to meet us at a local funeral home — her unofficial office. We asked her if we did this project what did she think it should include. That’s when she broke it down for us — about the police mugs, and the one-sided reporting.
She didn’t help us right away.
She told us later she would give us a couple families then ask the families how we were. She also waited to see how committed we were. It was good that she didn’t help us right away because it forced us to go out into the community more. We met with a lot of people always asking what would they like to see be included in the project or how could we report on violence better.
Everyone wanted ‘Solutions’ — what can they do, how can the public get involved.
Oakland is a town of organizers, historically. Huge civil rights changes have come from this city and not too long ago. People remember, and you feel that history when you go out and talk to people.
We need to mention Jane Ellen Stevens at this point, too.
In the beginning we were just going to interview the families and do some infographics about the homicides — Jane really pushed us to do more.
She and Lori Dorfman have a document that can be found on the web called “Reporting on Violence – A Handbook for Journalists” — we highly recommend it to folks looking to report on violence in a new way. It really pushed us to rethink the project.
II: Will the map be updated with 2007 numbers as the stories happen, or will readers have to wait until 2008 to see the totals?
KN: Yes. That took the most time. Sean built the site so it could be easily updated by the staff at the Tribune. You don’t need to know Flash, all you need to know is how to fill out a form and upload photos. That goes for every component of the site. Everything can be easily updated by staff. We wanted to have 2007 up the day of the launch but we just got swamped trying to build the actual site.
II: What was the workflow like on design and development of the project?
KN: We were trying to raise funds during the process of tracking down the families and developing the concept. The idea being that if we raised the money we could hire some people to help us build the site.
But, fundraising is a nightmare.
Many foundations don’t understand the power of the web as far as building community and organizing. They thought we were building a simple HTML site that would be launched then stand still. (Or, maybe our proposals didn’t explain it well enough.)
Anyway, Sean and I didn’t have money to pay anyone so we had to do it all on our own. I talk about the design with Sean, then I develop the ideas — first in Photoshop then I bring it into Flash.
Sean then does all the actionscripting.
Sean had to build the site in a way that the Tribune staff could easily use the site. That was a huge learning curve for Sean. But he pulled it off — I’m not just saying this because he is my husband … The man ROCKS!
WAIT– I have to mention Jeremy Rue. He is a graduate student at Berkeley’s J-Lab. He was an intern at the Trib the summer before. [Ed. note: Jeremy was working his ass off in the online pod across from me in the Tribune newsroom while I was interning as a reporter on the ANG regional desk.]
Sean loved him. Worked really hard, super enthusiastic.
At the end of January we were panicking, we didn’t know if we could get the site done in time. We had just lost $10,000 we thought we were getting from a foundation. So we literally had zero money to offer.
We called Jeremy and asked him if he could help. We told him we would pay a little bit of money a couple of hundred dollars. He told us he didn’t want the money just a credit on the site. Every time we would send him something to do he would get so excited about the challenge.
It was awesome. Sean and I at this point had lost all sense of excitement. (You can imagine.) So it was great to have Jeremy’s enthusiasm.
II: Any code/functionality reason to choose Yahoo Maps over Google?
KN: We were actually using Google at first because you could get a closer view of the street — which we thought would be more powerful. Let the user see the family on the street where their loved one was murdered.
SC: You are the second person to ask that question. I don’t really have any great answers except Yahoo’s support for Flash. We looked at both in the beginning.
Initially, we wanted to try to go with Google because their map zoomed into a closer street level and that worked better for our design. So to use it in Flash, I found an open source component for Flash called Gmap that allowed you to run Google maps inside Flash.
I fooled around with that for awhile modifying the source code but I could never get it to load quick enough, so I scrapped that idea and went with Yahoo. It has been fairly easy ever since. A couple bugs with the Flash API I’m still working out but nothing major. As far as speed, I feel they’re both on par with each other and it would be splitting hairs to compare.
II: How much interaction did you have with the reporters and editors on the story? Were you pretty much on your own or did editors ask for design and functional tweaks here and there?
KN: As far as the site we were on our own. The story that Brenda Payton did (phenomenal reporting!!), “Ripples of a Homicide,” originally came from Kevin Keane, VP of News CNP-North. Kevin wanted to look at how a single homicide affects a city.
We had come across the Layne family in our search to learn more about homicide victims. We suggested to Brenda contact the Laynes. Brenda took those two ideas and ran with it. Again, she did an amazing job.
We also have to acknowledge the Layne family, specifically Silena and Shivawn Layne, who trusted the Trib to tell their story. That was huge. Really huge.
II: Who did the (new?) interviews and photos of the victims’ families? Army of interns? You two? Staff photographers? Were the families generally supportive of the project?
KN: That army of interns would be Sean and I. Kathleen offered to help, but Sean and I aren’t web site builders. That isn’t what we want to do really. We just did it because it needed to get done. We like storytelling. So even though it was hard, we balanced the job of doing both.
We needed it. Meeting the families gave us a sense of purpose. They really wanted to have a voice to speak out — that helped fuel us to do the things we weren’t so excited about. Like programming.
II: How much online participation do you expect from the community most affected by the homicides?
KN: We expect the families to do what they are doing right now. Basically, filling out the Guest Books and adding comments to the “Talk Back” page.
Marilyn warned us that the families will need some time to get over the homicide map. She explained it’s really hard. The families want it to happen because they need their loved one to be acknowledged, but it doesn’t mean they are prepared for emotional stuff that comes up when the map is printed. So it may take a bit of time.
What we imagine happening is that the families will come to the site as more stories are developed and as more questions of possible solutions are posed. These families are an incredible resource in solving this problem of violence.
People blame the families for not doing enough to save their loved one and it is a mistake. Sean and I were guilty of it, too.
Society tries to make sense of violence by blaming the victims and its a just huge mistake. I’m still processing this whole experience, so I can’t articulate that well yet. I just really hope people this project helps people see beyond the stereotypes. The families are a huge resource and they are ready and motivated to make some change. Look at Marilyn Harris — that’s just one mother — and look how committed she is to serve the community.
Thanks to Sean and Katy for letting me (and you) into their process, and thanks to Kathleen Kirkwood and Patrick Perron at the Oakland Tribune and InsideBayArea.com for pointing me at Sean and Katy.
The increasingly familiar disclaimer: The company that owns the Oakland Tribune also owns the newspaper that employs me.