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Digital Tools for Crime Writers

Crime journalist Steve Lillebuen painted a complex and spooky picture of a killer in The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room.

We caught up with the journalist to find out what digital tools he used to build his book. Lillebuen explained how he used valuable tools like OCR software and the Wayback Machine to explore the killer’s life. We’ve embedded the complete interview below, but here’s an excerpt:

My advice, however, is to treat the Internet as just another tool and not abandon old research and journalism skills. You still have to get out there and have good contacts, speak to a lot of sources, ask them questions, door knock, be very patient, and be prepared to be yelled at. Nobody loves a police reporter, as Edna Buchanan liked to say. You’re prying into people’s lives during their most traumatic moment. You’re bound to face a lot of abuse. My book research ended up straddling both the digital and the real world. I spent a year interviewing the killer in prison. He didn’t have access to a computer and could rarely make phone calls, so he ended up sending me more than 350 pages of hand-written letters.

Q: How has crime reporting changed over the course of your career? What’s your advice for aspiring true crime writers working in our digital age?

A: I’ve always felt this case says a lot about life in the digital age. It couldn’t have happened five years earlier because it relies so much on social media in the planning, execution and covering up of the crime. But what helped create this criminal case was also instrumental in solving it. He used the Internet to become a would-be serial killer and in doing so ended up leaving a complete trail of everything he did.

The Internet has changed crime and also how reporters are doing their jobs in covering it.

Crime reporting used to rely heavily on making hundreds of phone calls, spending hours door-knocking neighbours, and returning to the crime scene repeatedly in the hopes of tracking down that one person who could tell you something.

Today, a lot of that digging has been streamlined by social media. A journalist no longer has to cold call hundreds of people listed in the phone book with the same last name as the victim or suspect in the hopes of finding a relative. Most of them can be found within seconds online. A reporter can also easily find photos and a list of friends for just about anyone these days, thanks to Facebook. This task used to take days. Witnesses are posting photos, video and text straight into public spaces like Twitter too.

But killers are also crawling in these spaces, becoming a new form of online broadcaster in the process. Their audience ends up being us. It was startling for me to read Mark Twitchell’s Facebook public status update saying he had “way too much in common” with fictional serial killer Dexter Morgan when a detective had just noted how the Dexter TV series was the likely inspiration for his crimes.

These kinds of public declarations from Mark Twitchell proved very useful for me in writing the book because that status update, and everything else he had written online, had a time stamp attached to it. I could track his progression from filmmaker into an aspiring serial killer through the years as his writings, day by day, became more twisted and bizarre.

My advice, however, is to treat the Internet as just another tool and not abandon old research and journalism skills. You still have to get out there and have good contacts, speak to a lot of sources, ask them questions, door knock, be very patient, and be prepared to be yelled at. Nobody loves a police reporter, as Edna Buchanan liked to say. You’re prying into people’s lives during their most traumatic moment. You’re bound to face a lot of abuse.

My book research ended up straddling both the digital and the real world. I spent a year interviewing the killer in prison. He didn’t have access to a computer and could rarely make phone calls, so he ended up sending me more than 350 pages of hand-written letters. So, I had to go back to the very basics and combine that information with what I had gleamed from his online persona, and what others were telling me about him.

Q: Your book depended on a vast amount of Internet research into chat rooms, dating sites and other online sources. How did you gather and sift through this material? Any advice for journalists trying to research the online lives of their subjects?

A: With great difficulty! I think historians will find the 21st Century is quite frustrating to explore because anything online can be so easily deleted or altered. We’re not going to have the same rich history of primary documents anymore. A lot of the world wide web’s first few years of history, for instance, is already gone.

I this case, Mark Twitchell’s Facebook profile was deleted soon after his arrest. Luckily, I had already taken screen grabs of his open profile and copy-pasted some of his key status updates and notes. So, crime reporters have to act very quickly before someone starts deleting things.

His film production company website was taken down. I didn’t have a copy. But I got my hands on a surviving record because the Wayback Machine had archived some of it. It’s a very useful tool. Several message boards still had their entire history available online, especially in the Star Wars fan community, which plays a role in the book.

One of the victims, Johnny Altinger, was a heavy user of newsgroups. He actually shared some things about his life in newsgroups that he didn’t share with his closest friends. I always wanted to give the victim equal space in this story. So it was invaluable for me to be able to quote his actual words as he had written them. I couldn’t have done that if Google hadn’t kept a copy of Usenet conversations (I don’t know when, but Google wisely bought up the archive at some point).

I also used a few online services that can help data mine social media sites. One let me track down user accounts if I had their email address.

One thing I should note is the absolute need to verify online information. You can’t make any assumptions. You have to be confident that what you’ve found is real. There are lots of resources out there on how to verify content. For me, the key issue in this case was finding the line between reality and fantasy. They can become so easily blurred, especially online. Mark Twitchell had used many different names on the Internet and it took a great deal of time for me to verify that those postings were actually him.

A lot of crime reporting, however, still comes from old fashioned document digging. I spent a lot of time in libraries, courthouses and public records offices. I tracked down some of Mark Twitchell’s US contacts in the Midwest that way. Some of that research is moving online as organisations digitize their databases, but a lot of document digging still requires you to physically be there.

Q: Your built your book out of a wide-ranging collection of interviews with people in all corners of this case. What tools did you use to collect, transcribe and organize your interviews? Any advice for journalists trying to organize a vast collection of interviews for a book?

A: The court file itself was, I think, over 10,000 pages long, so I was being buried in binders of information. And then I had hours of interviews with a lot of different sources.

A few tips: I ended up scanning key documents into my computer and used OCR software so I could search for keywords later.

And I put everything onto a master timeline.

In writing narrative non-fiction, I wanted to see where the narrative arcs occurred and when certain characters crossed paths, what each person was doing at specific moments in time. It was a lot easier to see in my mind if I had it all written down in chronological order so I could story board the book later.

I found it fascinating that despite all the cross cutting between these very different lives, the piece of string that ties much of the storyline together is the Internet. It was this invisible force that bound detectives, the victims, their friends and the killer together.

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