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Only on AP: Death of ‘hood CNN’ video pioneer exposes gangland reporting risks

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There’s always a better story behind a statistic.

Chicago’s homicide rate is one of the worst in the United States. By digging into one drive-by shooting, Chicago-based legal affairs reporter Michael Tarm and Houston-based video journalist John Mone found out how one victim’s life had inspired a generation of gang territory storytellers.

Telling it took a lot of sourcework.

Tarm had already been working on a story about social media and gangs, and he’d watched a few of Zack Stoner’s reports on Chicago street gangs and rappers on his ZackTV1 YouTube channel. When reports surfaced in May that Stoner was gunned down, Tarm began to look deeper.

He learned that Stoner, known by his nickname, ZackTV, was a household name in some Chicago neighborhoods. Through his work, he provided a window into street culture and launched careers of several rappers by spotlighting them.

But Tarm also stumbled across a wider story – about a new brand of gutsy gangland reporters in Chicago and elsewhere who have avid followers on YouTube. It also was making several of their creators rich as they pulled in millions of views a month.

Getting access to the storytellers was tough. They are constantly on the move and many are leery of legacy media. One gangland reporter was helpful,but would not reveal his real name. Several gangs,he explained,were hunting for him because he had named some members as hit men on his YouTube channel. He uses a pseudonym in his work,too. He suggested another reporter,Shawn Cotton. Cotton was eager to discuss Stoner, his impact on the genre and the effect his killing had on him and others.

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Video blogger Shawn Cotton, left, poses with rapper Wayne Walker, who performs under the stage name 30 Rich, after Cotton interviewed Walker for his YouTube channel “Say Cheese TV,” in Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 27, 2018. – AP PHOTO / JOHN L. MONE

In Texas,Mone rode along with Cotton to the Meadow Brook subdivision in Fort Worth,dubbed “Murder Brook” by some of the kids on the street where Cotton filmed. Tarm also worked to get the necessary copyright acknowledgements for photos of Stoner and Cotton with his pink Corvette, which moved with the story and video.

The multi-platform work played prominently on several websites,including the Chicago Sun-Times,Chicago Tribune,Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MSN. The Sun-Times teased the story Page 1 the next day and devoted a full page to the AP coverage. By Tuesday morning,the package had 42,700 page views,with an impressive 53-second average engagement.

For relentless sourcework to show how a generation of storytellers is impacting its communities, Tarm and Mone win this week’s Best of the States.

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