The Docket: Northeastern’s new justice reporting lab

Graduate students at the Northeastern University School of Journalism are getting ready to launch a media platform they hope will attract students, faculty, and community members for years to come: a new website called the Docket.

The idea for the Docket came from Media Innovation graduate students Emily Hopkins, Brilee Weaver, and Priyanka Ketkar. That core team had been involved in work on Homicide Watch Boston, a web-based outlet for reporting on homicides and related court cases that Northeastern’s journalism school had supported for years, and eventually began brainstorming ways to improve Homicide Watch’s coverage.

That planning eventually developed into the Docket, which Dina Kraft, coordinator of the journalism department’s Media Innovation track for graduate students and a faculty “shepherd” of the Docket initiative, said will be “a 2.0 version of Homicide Watch.”

The digital media project is set to be integrated into Northeastern’s journalism program and the surrounding Boston community for years to come. Hopkins, Ketkar, and Weaver see the new justice reporting lab as an opportunity to expand student journalists’ impact, bring new experiences to Northeastern classes, and involve nearby neighborhoods in students’ reporting on relevant urban issues.

“There’s a really big problem in journalism schools with how to navigate sending kids out to the community to do projects for class, and those things never seeing publication,” Hopkins said. “In my experience, they’re not doing a great job, so you have these kids, many times they’re more privileged, parachuting into the neighborhood, talking to people, writing the story, and then the story never gets published and then the students disappear after the semester or after they graduate.”

Hopkins wants to change that idea at Northeastern by setting up an outlet for student journalism that not only allows students to learn and do work, but to develop meaningful reporting skills and engage their civic neighbors beyond an interview for a class project.

“If the Docket can kind of be built into Northeastern’s department of journalism,” said Hopkins, “I think that we can break that cycle and have a relationship with the community that is better for everyone involved.”

The Docket team sees that opportunity in the website’s launch to come not only from the way students will work more closely with the community, but also in the expanded look the vertical will take at Boston justice issues. Homicide Watch closely tracks individual homicides and court cases, stories that “often go missing,” according to Kraft. While that is a mission not many news organizations can match, the Docket team wants the new site to dig deeper into justice in Boston to get a bigger picture of the city’s homicide problem.

“We’re looking beyond just the purview of homicide and that kind of extreme violence and looking at justice issues at large across the city,” Kraft said.

For Aleszu Bajak, an adjunct Northeastern Media Innovation professor and one of the Docket’s faculty resources, that expansion of vision from Homicide Watch to the new publication is one of the reasons he thinks the site will thrive and engage students once it launches.

“I hope it actually attracts a lot more students than Homicide Watch did,” Bajak said. “[Homicide is] a pretty somber subject and not everyone’s cut out for the court reporting and following devastated families.”

“This is an opportunity to follow something that you’re passionate about,” he added. The Docket could feature stories on inequality and justice from housing to transportation, “and not necessarily have to do with homicide,” per Bajak.

While creating a site focused on that type of material and on fostering a good relationship with the surrounding community are primary goals of the Docket team, another aspect of the project is how it can educate Northeastern’s journalism students and bring a new approach to many of the school’s courses.

“We think that having it as part of the curriculum is a guarantee for content,” Weaver said. And while she sees the Docket integrated into coursework as a positive for the site, she also thinks it will be a good outlet for student reporters to have “a guarantee that this journalistic work goes places.”

“We would love that,” she said, “And it’s rewarding for students too because why just submit something and have it sit on your desktop for semesters?”

Classroom integration will be an objective for the Docket going forward, and with that its staff hopes students can also utilize new and developing media tools to tell stories on the site. Homicide Watch uses mostly text stories and images, but the Docket team is aiming to incorporate a variety of formats and visualizations to present their content.

“That’s part of the lab concept where people can experiment with different kinds of storytelling, because one of the questions in the journalism industry right now is ‘How do we use all these digital tools to tell better stories?’,” Hopkins said.

“Not everyone likes to read, but everyone likes to see themselves represented in media,” she said. “We should be using everything that’s in our toolbox to tell our stories and make them as impactful as they can be.”

For Bajak, the focus on taking advantage of digital journalism’s newest tools is another exciting part of the Docket enterprise.

“[Students] can kind of take a lot of the topics and the general ideas of what the site’s about and then apply new formats to telling those stories, be they podcasts or data visualization or just kind of databases and code,” he said. “Jumping onto something new is awesome because you get to define it… It’s kind of a model for what future media projects are going to look like.”

With its official launch approaching, the core Docket staff is excited to see how it will develop in its first semester live online, and where future staffers will take it. Hopkins, Weaver, Ketkar, and others have been the main players in getting the Docket up and running, but they won’t be around forever and are looking for more students to step in and shape the project at Northeastern for years to come. Before that though, they are looking forward to seeing the first of what the Docket has to offer.

“It has felt like a marathon getting there,” Weaver said. “The finish line is so close, but we’re just like 10 feet away in a freeze frame waiting to barrel ahead.”

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