Murder He Wrote, Online Only

It is a story with “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order: SVU episode written all over it. A straight, married man is found dead in the million dollar home of a gay “thruple.” At least two to the three men living together in the house are having a dom/sub relationship. Police find S&M-related sex toys in the house where the man is found dead. The eventual suspects–which includes a gay rights activist/lawyer at a prominent D.C. law firm–appear to have cleaned up the crime scene and then immediately lawyered-up.

The story of Robert Wone’s murder got the big treatment by the Washington Post in a two-day series distributed only on-line. The more than 6,600 word story by Paul Duggan details the 2006 murder and investigation which has still not yielded a murder charge. Instead, the three suspects have been charged with obstruction of justice after a police investigation that appears to have botched the use of key evidence, including the victim’s Blackberry.

The piece is a great read, with passages like this:

[I]nside of about 79 minutes, with no apparent planning: the victim was subdued, drugged by injection and sexually assaulted electrically before being stabbed to death, then washed; the room was cleaned, a phony murder knife was doctored and planted, and the real weapon and other bloody leftovers were made to vanish – with time remaining for the housemates to shower off and get their story straight.

The package never made it into the print edition–only teaser boxes were in print–and instead the story was told in the on-line version of the paper with an accompanying package of graphics, recordings, and documents. The story has resulted in a lot of discussion about why the story was only online, but also why the story was written at all.

The reporter was asked in an online chat why he wrote the story, given the much more extensive coverage the murder and investigation has gotten in the Washington Blade and the Legal Times.

[Duggan] Yes, the Legal Times, the Blade and others have done a fine job covering incremental developments in the case — but nowhere (that I’m aware of) has the entire story been laid out, top to bottom, in one coherent narrative, which is what I set out to do. . . . As for new details, yes, in fact, the story does contain a fair amount of them, especially concerning the backgrounds of the three housemates and how they came to be together in that place on that night. Beyond that, I think just having the complex case explained clearly is something new in and of itself to many Post readers. As for why the story isn’t in the physical newspaper, that’s a question for senior editors here, not me. I’m a mere typist. But I will say, generally, that some stories, to be told right, need A LOT of space, and there is a finite amount of it available in the printed paper. Fortunately in this age we have a boundless digital venue that can accommodate narratives like this one.

Duggan is correct that the LGBT press and the legal press–both the victim and one of the suspects were lawyers in a lawyer-obsessed town–did much of the heavy lifting on covering the story that had been largely ignored by the WP.

The decision to only run the package online has resulted in even more navel-gazing at the WP, especially by the paper’s terrific Ombudsman Andrew Alexander who defended the decision in his most recent column.

Privately and publicly, some Post staffers have questioned the decision. On balance, I think editors made the right call.

The affluent and educated Washington market is unique. Post research shows that most area households have computers and that nearly 80 percent have broadband access. Even among households where The Post is read only in print, 86 percent have a computer and 81 percent accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. So while those readers may not like to read online, they have the capability.

But forcing them to do so carries risks. As it struggles to return to profitability, a bright spot for The Post is that circulation has held relatively stable. But it will surely suffer if too much high-value content is available only online.

Alexander has done some follow-up on his blog including some interesting critiques by former Postie Greg Stoltz detailing how the online package could have been improved. They are great tips for multimedia packages.

I tried to read it all online and found it untenable. My carpal tunnels began to burn. My attention faded. I printed the two pieces out and read them later. It was very enjoyable, like indulging one of those great New Yorker articles that you have to ignore your family to finish.

Hard, non-negotiable facts: People read 25 percent slower online than on paper and can rarely sustain even that slowed pace through multiple screens. [By my math, it would take at least 45 minutes in front of the computer to read just the text of the story.] Online users also behave differently. They don’t read long stories from point to point. [One outlier study by a news organization contradicts this, but many others verify the reluctance to finish long stories.] They restlessly look for things to click. They get distracted by ads, which of course they must be in order for the site to generate revenue. [For more on online reader behavior, see this precis by the annoying half-genius/usability expert Jakob Nielsen].

2 Responses

  1. Michael – Thanks for giving attention to the case and Post story. I along with three freinds started the Robert Wone blog last year. One of us is a working journalist (and NLGJA member?) and I am formerly of C-SPAN.

    For anyone interested in complete immersion in the story, players and evidence, we welcome you.

    A good place to start: http://whomurderedrobertwone.com/faq-wone101/

  2. […] against the three men accused of a cover-up. With the criminal case over, the family of Wone–who was spending the night at the home of his college friend who was also a prominent gay right activist when he was found dead and the scene cleaned […]

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