The powerful structured approach of The Next to Die

The new feature of the Marshall Project employs structured journalism to tell about prisoners on death row.

By Natalie Ritchie – October 21, 2015 | Print this article

The homepage said Licho Escamilla was scheduled to die in seven hours and 16 minutes.

Escamilla, convicted for killing a Dallas police officer, was featured last week on The Next to Die, a structured journalism site produced by The Marshall Project.

The site, which launched in September, uses a structured approach to enhance traditional coverage of capital punishment.

In contrast to the typical coverage of executions, The Next to Die uses a simple, stark display to focus on upcoming cases. The countdowns are steady and relentless. The death row prisoners are depicted as a row of silhouettes waiting for the inevitable, heads bent and marked by the day of their scheduled death. Their shadows move slightly with movement of the mouse or trackpad.

The site uses stark imagery and simple countdowns for prisoners on death row.
The site uses stark imagery and simple countdowns for prisoners on death row.

The Next to Die “has the potential to create persistent coverage of capital punishment, rather than a story where journalists parachute in on the eve of executions,” Ziva Branstetter, editor-in-chief of site partner The Tulsa Frontier, told The Nieman Lab.

The project has several innovations that can be valuable for other structured sites. It uses an embeddable widget to broaden its audience. It relies on local media partners to provide scalability and on-the-ground expertise. And it doesn’t look like a database – its design puts the emphasis on drama, not data.

Deputy Managing Editor Tom Meagher said the regional partners contribute to case profiles and The Next to Die gathers the data to make it “more reusable over time.” He said the format was inspired by the structured approaches of the fact-checking website PolitiFact and Homicide Watch, which tracks homicide cases in several cities.

Currently, after a person has been executed, the profile can no longer be viewed. But Managing Editor Gabriel Dance said this is only temporary, and “in the near future all of the information will be available in an accessible and meaningful way.”

Dance emphasized the goal is not advocacy – the organization says it does not take a position on capital punishment – but to humanize those on death row.

The project also aims to increase awareness about the frequency of executions and provide more details about the individual cases. Especially in rural areas, many of these stories go chronically under-reported, Dance said, contributing to a “lack of accountability around the process.”

Bypassing the use of a traditional countdown timer, the ticking is implicit and understated. Not counting down by seconds was an intentional choice. Dance said the site was “not supposed to be like the Hunger Games where it’s a spectacle,” but instead to convey the “gravity of the situation.”

The subtle countdown has the added benefit of allowing the reader to be caught off guard by the passage of time. Seemingly all of a sudden, Licho Escamilla had just five hours and 48 minutes left.

The project tracks just 10 states and displays three executions per state at a time. Details are provided only for the next to die in each state.

The profiles of each death row inmate are short. Although the team has collected more data, only the name, time of execution, state, and a case summary are publically viewable for now.

The project is looking for several more partners and will likely expand the profiles, adding new case details in a structured journalism format.

In the meantime, the countdowns continue, providing visceral reminders of what Dance calls the “finality of ending a life at a specific time.”

Licho Escamilla was executed last Wednesday. The next to die is Jerry Williams Correll.