An Internet news service seeks to do justice to our appetite for this genre.
APBnews.com claims to have found the perfect journalism formula for the 21st century: make crime pay, online, by writing about it fairly and accurately while feeding the public's right to know.
The year-old Internet news outfit is capitalizing on Americans' lack of confidence in the press, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system. Studies show that despite falling crime rates, the public still perceives crime as a significant problem and distrusts those in a position to solve or write about it. At the same time, New York City-based APB caters to the public's insatiable appetite for stories about murder and mayhem. "This genre transcends gender, economic groups, or age groups," says former investment banker Marshall Davidson, one of APB's founders and its current chief executive officer.
Through ad agency Bozell Kamstra, a unit of Bozell Worldwide, APB launched a $20 million multimedia campaign in September with the tagline "You have the right to know" emblazoned on a strip of yellow police tape across the image of a crime scene. The ad's message, says Mark Reeves, who oversees the account at Bozell, is that APB will take the public behind the usual institutional barriers and give access to unbiased information.
The agency won the account in August by, among other things, staging a realistic-looking robbery at APB's New York headquarters, acted out with the help of a professional theater company. Reeves says that many of those present, including APB staffers gathered for the pitch, jumped up and screamed when one actor/suspect drew a knife.
According to the Justice Department, an estimated 45 million U.S. residents - one in six - have some sort of face-to-face contact with law enforcement officers every year. And even though the number of serious crimes has declined dramatically since 1992, public opinion surveys show that Americans don't feel safer: Nearly seven in ten believe the crime rate is rising, and more than half say they are concerned with their own public safety, according to data compiled by Public Agenda. Crime is also one of the most covered subjects by news organizations. Last year, according to Media Monitor, crime ranked third on the network news agenda, with a total of 1,392 stories devoted to crime. In 1997, crime coverage placed first.
Still, the public finds fault even with that coverage, further research shows. Media confidence is at an all-time low, according to Yankelovich Monitor. Its latest findings, released in October, indicate that only 24 percent of Americans have confidence in the news on TV, a sharp decrease from 1988, when 55 percent of people felt the same. Moreover, 77 percent of those surveyed this year said they were skeptical about accuracy in the media. "The media has really taken it on the chin," says David Bersoff, who heads the Yankelovich Monitor surveys.
APB hopes to advance its brand as a first mover in the crime-media genre by correcting that. In addition to capitalizing on its "renegade" status as an online-only news venture, the company has lured top-flight investigative journalists, including Pulitzer prize winner Sydney Schanberg, thanks to financing secured by Davidson and one of his partners, former banker Matthew Cohen: an initial infusion of $3.5 million and an additional $20 million, recently raised in a second round of financing. APB investors include Derek Reisfield, founding chairman of CBS Marketwatch, and organizations such as Gabelli Media Partners and Seligman Communications and Information Fund. Last spring, APB won the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for Journalistic Excellence, the first ever given to an Internet-based news organization.
In its first year, APB has grown into a full-blown network with eight different channels, comprised of 23 programs for wide-ranging audiences. A staff of about 100, plus 149 correspondents, feeds the news hole.
The APB business plans calls for a three-part content mix: original stories for the Web site, syndicated information from other news sources, and interactive dialogue between users and APB.
In addition, Davidson says, there is the potential for partnering with other distribution channels - television, radio, and print - by syndicating APB's original content. "Crime and Punishment," produced by APB, appears on the MSNBC Web site, alongside content provided by The Wall Street Journal.
The demographic appeal of the site has already widened considerably, says Erica Ress, APB's senior vice president of marketing and sales, who was in charge of strategic brand planning for Bozell before Davidson lured her away. Six months into the launch, Ress says, visitors were mostly men aged 18 to 34. Now it's almost equally divided between men and women - thanks, in part, to diverse programming.
Ress lists at least two APB channels that appeal to women: one covering media and entertainment and another focusing on safety issues. The channel dedicated to criminal justice stories scores highest with men aged 18 to 40, many of whom are either single or divorced, Ress reports. APB received 311,000 unique visitors in September alone, according to Media Metrix.
With specific audience measurements in hand, APB hopes to be able to secure the kind of advertising support Davidson says they need to break even, 30 months into the launch. Ress, who has a law degree in addition to two decades of experience as an ad agency creative director, just started working on sponsorship platforms, pairing advertisers with channels that target specific demographics. She says she sold 95 percent of the available co-op ad space in the first five weeks following her arrival, not counting the ad platforms she is currently devising.
"People like to throw money at us," says Ress, who exudes the excitement of someone who has finally found her mission. "We're unstoppable."