By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Enter a life of crime and there's a good chance more than notoriety will follow. Breathing down the necks of criminals are legions of buffs who track all aspects of illicit acts and law enforcement's quest against them. Some news outfits are counting on that persistence to catapult them into the big time. Trying to establish itself as the "ESPN of crime and police news," APB Online (apbonline.com) sped onto the scene in hot pursuit just three months ago, with the cyber equivalent of a police light strapped to its dash and sirens blaring. This rookie news organization is out to offer something for everyone interested in true crime.
APB follows a slew of sitesa long line of hits and missesthat have tried to put the cuffs on the criminal element. Over a year ago MGM Interactive issued a press release trumpeting a new Web show, True Crime Stories, which was supposed to crack cold cases in the style of America's Most Wanted, with crime-incident reports, crime-scene sketches, photographs, ballistics summaries, and autopsy and toxicology reports at the ready. It seems to have suffered an indefinite postponement. A much linked URL called The Crime Files dealt with crimes around the country and offered reward money for at-large fugitives. Its apparent demiseand the single-minded approach of sites like itopened up the way for multipronged sites like APB. APB's sections range from 911 News, covering stories from coast to criminal coast, to Safe Streetssafety and anticrime infoto major cases such as the never-ending JonBenet Ramsey saga.
APB director of content Mark Sauter, a former investigative journalist, calls the organization a combination of "a rust belt newsroom filled with old-school reporters and editors, and a Silicon Valley start-up with new media geeks and nerds." APB's staff34 full-timers, 19 of whom are journalists, and all of whom have an equity stake or stock optionsoccupy an intimate office space on the East River near the bustle of Wall Street and the South Street Seaport. You can almost imagine that the bodies that once floated up nearby serve as inspiration. APB's credentialed reporters generate original content, and in a generously consistent quantity, aided by stringers from across the nation, such as contributing editor George Lardner Jr. from The Washington Post and the New York Post's Murray Weiss.
APB is able to inundate even the most avaricious of would-be sleuths with the G-Files, filled to the rim with declassified government documents (accessed via the Freedom of Information Act). Ol' Blue Eyes' fed file was put up as soon as it was availablein its entirety, with plenty of editorial guide tagsprompting the FBI to direct voyeurs to APB. The G-Files tries to rival established sites, such as The Smoking Gun (coedited by the Voice's own Bill Bastone), known as the place to go for documents hand-selected by very discriminating eyes. "What people want is to be able to judge for themselves," says Sauter, rather than merely accepting the media's version of events. He added that the days APB posts big FOIA files, "there's 15 times normal traffic. It drives the site to its knees." He says that APB gets hits in the low millions daily.
Managing editor Hoag Levins, lured away from Editor & Publisher, says he knew there was high demand for this type of coverage. "Look at any paper and you'll find that cops, crimes, courts, and prisons account for 33 percent of the edit content."
Sauter says he intends the site to be "the popular authority across all media," and has lofty ambitions of feeding original stories to mainstream media much as a wire service does.
APB hopes to capitalize on true crime's infusion into our everyday lives. Reality TV delivers doses of violence to viewers, and the Fox network has made a killing with prepackaged specials geared toward video snatches of disasters, car chases, and good pets gone bad. But TVas explicit as it iscan't show everything. Censorship and scheduling constraints have prompted fans to make the move from the couch to the computer station, where there are fewer restrictions on content and the only speed bumps on the way to feeding the addiction are modem connections. Even crime dramas have made the transition from television to the Net.
NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street recently spawned a first: a collaborative story line with its Net-based spin-off series, Homicide: Second Shift. (Launched a year ago, it has featured four interactive murder dramas.) Sweeps fever may have instigated this latest hybrid gimmick, which earlier this month set in motion a ritual murder plot, "Homicide.com"a fictional snuff filmon the Web site (nbc.com/homicide/SSHome/). The episode continued on the TV show, and is finishing back online through Friday.
Many sites, such as Ira Wilsker's massive Law Enforcement Sites on the Web (ih2000.net/ira/ira.htm#city), offer up resources for combating crime. Others, like A.J. Goldman's Serial Killer Info Site (serialkillers.net/), avoid gore and sensationalism by focusing on victim prevention. But sites like rotten dot com (rotten.com) or the Internet Crime Archives (mayhem.net/Crime/archives.html), which get down and dirty with stomach-turning imagery, act like magnets to a public infatuated with this genre.