An Atlanta newspaper is using Serial as inspiration for its own true crime podcast

by Dena Levitz
Oct 30, 2018 in Multimedia Journalism

Over Thanksgiving, Bert Roughton became hooked on the podcast Serial. Roughton was driving to see relatives, so all of the hours behind the wheel gave him ample time to become engrossed in the true crime podcast centered around convicted killer Adnan Syed.

Serial inspired scores of similarly devoted listeners. But unlike those others, Roughton is a newsroom leader, specifically managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), and he brought his affinity for Serial back to his Georgia newspaper.

The result is Breakdown, a weekly podcast series created by AJC. Though the podcast was Roughton’s initial idea, he quickly brought it to Bill Rankin, senior legal affairs reporter and a 25-year veteran of AJC.

Rankin tells IJNet his managing editor came to him in search of a Georgia-based criminal case that could work for a podcast in the same vein as Serial. Rankin, who at the time was helping report on a supposed cheating ring in Atlanta’s school system, remembered a case he hadn’t yet covered but could fit the bill.

Here’s the gist of the case he recommended, which became the basis for Breakdown:

In 2006 in Bremen, a town in western Georgia, an elderly woman named Alice Jackson was killed in her duplex as the result of a fire in the early morning hours. A young man named Justin Chapman, who lived on the other side of the duplex, was convicted of murder and arson and sentenced to life in prison. His lawyers claim Chapman’s innocence.

Why this case?

Rankin says, throughout his career, he’s taken great care to point out inequities in the country’s criminal justice systems.

“And I saw that in this case on so many levels,” he says. “The system broke down so many times it was sad. I thought that if we could write about and explain it it could help, in the long run, to improve the system.”

That’s also the reason for the name of the podcast.

So far six episodes -- out of likely seven -- have been aired and are freely available both on AJC’s site, iTunes, Soundcloud and Stitcher. In those, Rankin goes to the scene of the crime, interviews as many relevant players as he can and examines new evidence.

He’s more used to this aspect of the podcast, the shoe-leather reporting. Doing a podcast and telling a story through an audio program is something he’s not as familiar with as a career writer. However he says he was anxious to jump in and learn how, especially at a time when the AJC -- and other publications -- are “trying like hell to find new ways to tell stories.”

Rankin voices the episodes and does a bulk of the reporting. Yet he’s not alone. Management brought on a sound engineer, Chris Basta of CO3 Sound Atlanta. Georgia Public Radio veteran Susanna Capelouto was hired as a story consultant. From the staff, photographer Hyosub Shin has handled photos and videos while staff writer Bo Emerson -- a musician in his spare time -- played guitar, piano, harmonica, trumpet, bass and other instruments for the show’s music.

There’s also an assemblage of AJC staff responsible for promoting the podcast, providing tech support and for putting together extra materials for the website. This material, including photo galleries and court documents, is available for AJC subscribers only. In this way, the podcast is also serving as an impetus and inspiration to get users to subscribe, which can add to the bottom line.

For his part, Rankin has devoted most of his professional energies during the last six months to understanding and piecing together the case. Mostly, he’s been able to let colleagues cover current trials and criminal proceedings so his time can go toward making the episodes.

He estimates he made his first trip out to Bremen in January. Since then, he’s made the 47-minute drive there at least two-dozen times.

Along with talking to locals while there, he’s also gathered natural sound to enhance the episodes. For instance the sound of a train features prominently since Bremen’s trains are ever-present there. The train noise that listeners hear is real.

“I waited for two hours for that first train to come by,” Rankin says.

As part of his research, Rankin’s combed through about 2,000 pages of affidavits, transcripts and police investigation notes altogether. “And I’ve probably read all of those twice,” he says. “Really, I’ve tried to read as much as I can.”

The journalist and podcast host also has conducted as many interviews as possible -- between 50 and 60 -- to add depth and expertise, reaching out to lawyers who’ve studied the case, people directly involved or witnesses to any part of the sequence of events. One person he was not permitted to speak to is Chapman, the subject of Breakdown.

With most of the episodes released to the public, Rankin says feedback has been positive and the podcast had consistently made it into the iTunes top 100 for the news and politics category. His hope is that, above all, listeners get a greater understanding of the difficulties of public defenders and an appreciation of the criminal courts in the U.S., including their warts and wrinkles.

And after putting together a podcast, he’s become an even greater admirer of the power of dynamic, quality audio storytelling.

“I think a well-written story in a newspaper is a wonderful thing and can change the course of history,” he says. “But I also always thought really good audio is even better than good TV because you can do just about anything while you’re listening. You can be driving or in your yard at the same time as you’re hearing it unfold. It can really bring you into the moment of what you’re listening to.”

Image courtesy of AJC