Nonprofit Marshall Project gears up for putting criminal justice reform on national agenda

By Andrew Lapin

The Washington Post had a blockbuster front-page investigation with a lengthy Aug. 3 story about an unreliable witness in a Texas execution case. But the story came from a new kid on the block.

The Prosecutor and the Snitch” was the first story to be published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site focused on criminal justice reform. The Marshall Project, named after former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, plans to officially launch in October.

Barsky

Barsky

Founder and Chairman Neil Barsky, a former hedge fund manager, has also worked as a reporter for outlets including the Wall Street Journal, and he directed the 2013 documentary Koch. The site has a staff of 17, with more than a dozen editorial staff.

“I think there is a growing national consensus that our system is broken, it’s inefficient, it’s expensive, it’s often inhumane,” said Barsky. “And I think that good, honest, aggressive reporting is often a fabulous way to change minds.”

Barsky decided to launch The Marshall Project as a nonprofit because, as he puts it, “we’re dealing with an incredibly important topic, but we’re not dealing with a particularly commercial topic.” While for-profit journalism models are struggling, donors are more receptive to pitches from journalism ventures. “Increasingly, philanthropists understand the civic value of independent journalism,” he said.

And that journalism can still find readers. Between the first story’s publication on the Washington Post website and The Marshall Project’s own site, Barsky estimated the story drew nearly 500,000 unique readers in its first four days. The piece also ran on the front page of the Washington Post’s print edition and, without permission, in the Dallas Morning News, to the surprise and puzzlement of editors at The Marshall Project.

Keller

Keller

Reaching a general audience with niche investigations is important to Barsky and to The Marshall Project’s biggest hire, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who is the site’s editor-in-chief. “Since we’re not for-profit, our main goal is to get the stories as widely read as possible,” Keller said.

Freelance journalist Maurice Possley had already reported “The Prosecutor and the Snitch” before Keller approached the Post about running the investigation. Post editors made only a few changes, but future publication partners may have more ground-level involvement in stories, Keller said.

The Marshall Project has yet to work out some aspects of its operations, including future partners. It has applied to the IRS for 501(c)3 nonprofit status and plans to rely on support from foundations and donors, but Barsky, who has begun courting supporters, won’t announce major funders until closer to launch. The site may also seek advertisers.

Keller’s involvement has brought some cachet to an organization seeking a higher profile. “At the New York Times, the magic words that opened doors and got phone calls returned were, ‘From the New York Times,’” he said. “The Marshall Project doesn’t have that brand notoriety yet. To the extent that I bring some of that, that’s good.” Reporters will drop his name when they call sources, he said.

Keller will help to raise money by speaking at fundraising events, reviewing grant applications and meeting foundation representatives. Journalists should be aware of their organization’s business operations, he said.

“I lived for a long time in an institution that prided itself on the wall between people who make the product and people who try and sell the product,” he said. “But the truth is, we did a lot of talking over the top of the wall. If we wanted to launch a new section of some kind, I did not just talk to the people in the newsroom about the design and the contents and who should edit it. I also spent a lot of time talking to the advertising and circulation people about whether they could sell it.”

Keller and his staff at The Marshall Project will be talking a lot more in coming years — they aim to make criminal justice reform a matter of national debate by the 2016 presidential elections.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org

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