Last week we featured an investigative report about a serial killer on trial in Memphis published by The Commercial Appeal. Journalist Trevor Aaronson discussed the genesis of the story and the decision behind presenting it as an interactive timeline.
Describe the backstory of the Bam Jones case.
Before coming to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, I worked as a reporter at Village Voice Mediaâ€™s newsweeklies in South Florida. While there, I wrote about the Henry Lee Jones case — particularly about how the Fort Lauderdale Police Department seemed to have botched the case. Eventually, Jones was extradited to Tennessee to stand trial in Memphis, and several years after that, and by weird coincidence, I accepted a job at the CA.
I found the Jones case fascinating: Heâ€™d been in and out of prison and jail his entire life. In fact, heâ€™d still be in a Florida prison today were it not for early releases that came as a result of the overcrowded prison system in the ’90s. After his incarceration in Florida, records showed a clear escalation in his violence as well as the introduction of a sexual element to his crimes. His entire criminal life — some three decades — was documented in public records: court testimony, letters, police reports. Jonesâ€™ is a helluva story, and it became possible to tell it through those public records.
By the time I sat down to write the story for the CA, I had records and interviews from two states and many counties that dated back to the time Jones was 18 years old. Plainly, I had a ton of material. The question then became: How do we present it? We made the decision to produce a thin slice of the story for print and then present the more comprehensive timeline online.
What made the story important to your community?
For me, what was compelling was that the story illustrated how violent crime can migrate and how screw-ups in one state will harm another.
Jones first was released early from the Florida Department of Corrections due to the overcrowded prison, then arrested a half dozen times for a series of crime, and ultimately questioned but released in a murder the cops now say he committed. Florida screwed up over and over again, until finally Jones had an opportunity to come to Tennessee, where he killed an elderly couple. Thatâ€™s what made this story unique for Memphis, as I see it.
Memphis has a high murder rate — and itâ€™s a terrible problem — but in this case, it wasnâ€™t some thug who shot and killed a clerk. This was a violent man who slipped through the cracks over and over before he killed someone in Tennessee. How that happened is an important public story — and a damn good yarn.
How many people worked on the story?
The story, just me. I wrote what became the print story, and for the interactive timeline, I wanted to demonstrate that longform narrative journalism could be done in ways other than a 6,000-word text dump.
But I can only take credit for the research and the words. Freelancers Ryan J. Sparrow and Jennifer George-Palilonis did the Flash design, and the CAâ€™s online content director, Michael Erskine, helped herd the cats.
How did the interactive portion of the project come together?
Every time I saw Flash used, it was for an auxiliary purpose. It would be a timeline of, say, Microsoftâ€™s history, and each point on the timeline would have no more than two sentences. These didnâ€™t tell stories so much as they provided sketches and bite-sized pieces of information.
I wanted to see how we could use that same concept — a Flash-based timeline — but instead present a long, in-depth narrative. Each point on the timeline would be an individual story or vignette, as I envisioned it.
I wrote the individuals entries — the text behind each timeline point — and assembled the related documents and photos. Sparrow and George-Palilonis then took our concept and made it pretty and functional.
How often does the Commercial Appeal extend packages for the Web like they did with the Bam Jones story?
Not as often as it should, but thatâ€™s changing. In the past, this treatment accompanied projects, and then only some. The paper recently shifted online content control from a separate online department to the newsroom, where it belongs, and itâ€™s my hope — as well as, I think, the paperâ€™s — that this will finally cede creative authority to the creators and increase the number and quality of online projects we do.
How do you think community papers can distinguish themselves online?
Simply, the leaders of these papers need to step aside and give the next generation — my generation — a fighting chance to turn things around before itâ€™s too late. I think the business is truly that dire. From community papers to the largest metro dailies, the top editors and executives learned of social media by looking over their teenage daughterâ€™s shoulder and asking, â€œHey, whatâ€™s this Facebook thing?â€
Are these the folks best equipped to lead us into a brave new world?
I read you’ve resigned from the Commercial Appeal. What triggered your resignation, and what are your future plans?
The CA has been great to me. Iâ€™ve had the time and money to pursue the stories I wanted. Iâ€™ve been able to write about what I want to write about and take the time I need. Journalism jobs donâ€™t get any better than that.
But itâ€™s time to move on. I wanted to move back to Florida, my home state. I also decided it was time to put faith and personal risk in the ideas Iâ€™ve espoused repeatedly over too many beers: that most daily newspapers are not adapting quickly enough to survive (see answer above) and that individual journalists need to be entrepreneurial and open to different funding models. I think the nonprofit model — which you see ProPublica employing on a national level — is exciting and potentially game changing, particularly for investigative journalism.
Ed. Note: Mark Glaser at MediaShift recently did a roundup of alternative funding models currently used by media companies. If you’ve got some additional ideas, please post them.
And in case you missed it, ProPublica is looking for additional examples of investigative journalism. Got something you think deserves attention? Send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org.