After authorities this year reopened a case of an area teenager killed 40 years ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to review the investigation itself. Investigative reporter Gina Barton examined over 6,000 case documents, looking at how detectives pursued who killed 14-year-old John Zera, messed up along the way and what they are working on now.
How could the Journal Sentinel best present its findings on the Internet? Deputy managing editor Gregory Borowski assigned Web producer Erin Caughey, a 2014 Marquette graduate and former O’Brien Fellowship intern, to help lead the way. Caughey helped to create “Unsolved: A Murdered Teen, A 40-Year Mystery,” a seven-part, weekly interactive series with print stories, podcasts, videos, images and reader guides. Now in its third week, in many ways it’s modeled after the popular “Serial” podcast series from 2014.
Others may have developed significant portions of the content. But producing “Unsolved” for the Web meant for Caughey an opportunity to do something that few journalists have accomplished, given the relatively new world of interactive design. She creatively developed ways to display court documents, create investigation and case timelines and portray characters and suspects in the story. “Greg told me this series could be my baby, something I could learn from,” she said recently. “It definitely has been.”
Calling her a “star of the O’Brien internship program,” Borowski said Caughey has demonstrated plenty of leadership and the ability to tackle projects in a digital environment since her time at Marquette and now at the Journal Sentinel. “‘Unsolved’ is a good example of her coming up with her own ideas and perspectives,” he said. “In that role, you never want the person doing what others tell you. You want them to have a vision. And that is what she has.”
A native of Muskegon, Michigan, Caughey said she enjoys learning and using new Web coding languages and techniques and that “Unsolved” enabled her much more freedom given that most other Journal Sentinel special projects she has produced have relied on basic templates.
Caughey spent two semesters as an academic intern with 2013-14 O’Brien Fellow Dan Egan of Journal Sentinel. She helped Egan and other students research the invasive species epidemic in the Great Lakes, for the award-winning yearlong series “A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes At a Crossroads.” Caughey parlayed that experience into a summer internship at the Journal Sentinel’s Web team, an opportunity also funded by the O’Brien Fellowship.
As a summer intern, Caughey created interactive timelines – and even contributed some reporting – for Egan’s four-part sub-series, “How Invasive Species Changed the Great Lakes Forever,” published in July 2014. She did so well that summer that her internship was extended through the fall, with a full-time job offer coming in January 2015.
“I first got interested in coding and research with Egan,” Caughey said, adding that “I have continued to learn and I’m thankful that both experiences" – the internships and full-time job – “have given me the resources to do that.”
Julie Grace is a junior journalism major at Marquette and an O'Brien Fellowship program assistant.