Laura Amico, who turns 32 Saturday, is a University of California (Santa Cruz) anthropology graduate who, after stints as a small-town education reporter and in the Peace Corps, settled in Washington to use the Internet to give voice to victims of violence. Via reporting, online databases, and community involvement, Homicide Watch DC gained acclaim. It’s stated mission is, “Mark every death; remember every victim; follow every case.”
After a Harvard fellowship in journalism innovation, Amico and her web-developer husband Chris are extending their concept of data-rich accountability journalism to education in the Boston area. Allied with WBUR, the region’s main National Public Radio station, Learning Lab soft-launched last month and produced its first story this week.
This interview, conducted by Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s not so much a switch as an expansion, because we are running Homicide Watch DC and the other Homicide Watch sites [so far in Trenton, N.J.; Chicago; and Colorado]. When I finished the Neiman Berkman Fellowship, WBUR asked me what I’d like to work on next. That was really fantastic because as we left D.C. we were uncertain of what came next. To be frank and honest, I hadn’t had an editor say in a long time, “What do you want to work on?” So I casually throw out there, “[Covering] homicide is great, but a lot of people have asked about this [model] and education.” I had said it casually in the conversation, except we didn’t move on. It turned out that education was something WBUR was building competency in, and so they asked Chris and I to put together a quick pitch because they were applying for a Knight Community [Information Challenge] grant. That was due in three days. So over the weekend we put our heads together and I spoke with a lot of people, [asking them] how do you cover education in a meaningful way and how do you do it in a way that draws from the strengthens in Homicide Watch and the principles of narrative data and using that to tell better stories. The assumption is that the pivot point, instead of being each crime, would be each school.
A school would be the seed around which the information would revolve. That alone wouldn’t add much to education reporting. But when we asked about the big ideas needed, around Boston and Cambridge I heard about special projects and initiatives by philanthropists, research organizations, and nonprofits, and teachers and administrators had questions about them. [Like] they didn’t know how long they’d last, their impact, who was behind them, or why there were being done. So I started hearing these questions, I thought about the data structure of Homicide Watch. We start with a central seed and a good question and grow them into a better one.
We got there in three days, and I was really proud of that. The newsroom liked it. We had to write the grant [proposal]. It was sent to the Boston Foundation as our community partner. They accepted it from among those they received, and Knight accepted it, so here we are today.
It really is an outgrowth and expansion of [my early career]. I started as an education reporter in California and now I’m at a point, as I look back at that, I think about how little I knew, how differently I’d do it now. What I learned in that first job [covering the Pajaro Valley School District in Santa Cruz County] — I was in a fairly rural community in [Watsonville] California with a large migrant community [81 percent Hispanic, according to 2010 Census figures] — and everyone was talking about schools, their kids, and their projects and school board and what they were going to name the middle school. And that was where we had the vast majority of our connection with government. [Parents] wouldn’t go to a city council meeting, but they will go to the school board. Schools are where the majority of families interact with government.
Now I’m in a better position to better ask those questions, and they’re very interesting. We spent three or four years in D.C. where there’s a clear conversation on schools. While I didn’t follow them very closely, they helped me understand how people are trying to engage with the system.
[On the new Learning Lab site,] parents could likely find a page for their child’s school and see all the [funded] programs in the school that exist — mostly from outside district funds; which other schools that program exists in; find out how much nonprofit money is being spent and map that; look at who those donors are and look at patterns on how various individual donors are spending on schools by program or location; read background on the specific grant proposals — the background research and any documents to collect — and then from there share their own experiences. “This is what is happening in my kid’s school, and this is the intended result and this is what I see with my kids.” And with teachers too. What we’re going to try is to discus the measure of success — for an instructor, administrator or teacher.
It’s so much fun. I’ve been out of reporting for a year and a half, and it’s such a joy to be back in it. We’re multiplatform — radio and Web — and its fun to learn new things.
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