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April 29, 2017

Newsonomics: Bill Keller’s Marshall Project Finds Its Legs

The Marshall Project is off to a fast start. Ten thousand people a day now receive its daily summary of the latest news in criminal justice, linking up the best reporting and writing on topics from law enforcement to courts to corrections. It’s already published collaborations with The Washington Post and Slate; a joint project with The Atlantic will be published soon. Its next set of partners is an impressive list: The New York Times, WNYC, Vice, and Stars and Stripes. It’s well funded through this year, and close to halfway there for next year — a good start for $5 million foundation-backed nonprofit startup (“Bill Keller, The Marshall Project, and making single-focus nonprofit news sites work”).

So what do we know about the early progress of one of the highest-profile “single-subject sites,” a phenomenon that won our attention last year, but may have gotten lost in the big buzz of tens of millions of dollars newly moving into BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, Business Insider, and others. How is former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller making the transition to heading up Marshall?

Still a journalistic infant, The Marshall Project is already finding itself forced to find an identity. It’s outgrowing its early one-word handle — “investigative” — finding that honorable term too limiting and too restrictive in building audience.

Its daily email newsletter push is instructive. Only four years ago, Keller won attention for attacking Arianna Huffington as “queen of aggregation” in a Times column, saying she “has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.” Now he heads a website that’s trying to find its place in the digital world and has turned to Opening Statement, a daily compendium of, let’s say, curation that’s really quite useful for people following the broad range of justice news and thought.

“I’ve had an evolving relationship with the whole concept of aggregation,” Keller told me. “We do add a sentence of explanation to each one.” It’s well done, with sections on top stories, commentary, and “N/S/E/W” (aiming to map the U.S. well beyond the Northeast power corridor). It aims to declutter readers’ lives and to drive eyeballs, as do so many of this wave of popular morning email briefings (“The newsonomics of mixing old and new”). Keller’s evolution makes use of a core skill we’ve long expected of editors at the Times and other trustworthy sources: editing and selectivity.

Keller has put together an editorial staff of 21, including reporters, researchers, designers, tech, data, and audience people. That number is worth stopping on: No one else in the nation of 319 million devotes as much single-minded focus to the issue of criminal justice. That tells us a lot about the nature of editorial staffing, and tradition, and about what the digital publishing world — and a bit of financial benevolence — can now create.

“The Prosecutor and the Snitch” launched Marshall into the world, even before its formal debut. Asking the question “Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, the August 2014 piece offered incredible branding for a news startup, occupying a good part of The Washington Post’s front page and a couple of inside ones, while drawing 500,000 views on the Post’s website.

As it partners with news company collaborators, Marshall faces the issue of proving out — to itself, its funders, and the larger world — its impact. If people read Marshall work in lots of places, but not as much on Marshall itself, how can it do that? On its next partnered pieces, the site will embed a tracking pixel (with technology similar to the ProPublica-developed Pixel Ping), allowing it to tally up the traffic counted on others’ URLs. There’s traffic, and then there’s impact.

“When you review the Pulitzer entries,” says Keller, “the first thing you say: What was the impact? Did the law change? Was someone indicted? Even though you didn’t have that as a professed goal, that’s the first thing you list.” Keller, like many, isn’t yet clear how impact can best be measured, but the wider movement here is noteworthy, with lots of people figuring out workable metrics.

Keller knows criminal justice needs the long view, informed by real reporting and acute analysis. He’s not inclined to chase the crime story du jour, but staying atop the news — in some form — offers one measure of relevance, especially online. Take Wednesday’s timely top story, “Jon Stewart on Criminal Justice.” Offering a quick six Daily Show videos on the subject of crime, it’s entirely of the moment, and offers the kind of smart criminal justice analysis the satirist uniquely offers. (Though Comedy Central’s 15-second Kmart prerolls on each one are a bit off-putting). The Ferguson story happened before Marshall’s launch, and future stories like it will test the startup’s mission: How, and how much, to cover the few criminal justice stories around which TV media swarm?

The site already has grown beyond the initial investigative branding. Offering features, commentary, and news, the site’s development is still in progress. Favoring a reverse-chron long scroll of stories, there’s little attention to hierarchy or importance. At this point, too, the site is usually word-heavy. Excellent words — the quality of the writing, editing, and reporting is what we would expect, given Keller’s leadership — but still, for the most part, words. That’s especially noteworthy in an age that’s seen the phenomenon of Serial and Radiotopia’s Criminal, which The Huffington Post called “the best new radio show in America” debut. Multimedia is knocking down the doors that separated out pre-digital TV, radio, and print. In an ideal world, The Marshall Project will find a way to join in that fun.

Then, again, it’s important to remember that it’s only a few months old.

Neil Barsky recruited Bill Keller to the venture. The Wall Street Journal reporter turned hedge fund manager has committed $2 million to the site’s startup. (He explains his motivations and the Marshall name choice, here.) His contributions make up about a fifth of the annual $5 million budget. Working full time on Marshall, founder and chairman Barsky has brought in other funders, including an enviable list of more than a dozen foundations. Barsky says 2016 funding is almost halfway assured and believes Marshall will test “hybrid” revenue sources — including events, job postings, and ads — after it gets settled and grows an audience. He believes continuing money won’t be a problem — as long as Marshall excels at its mission.

The mission is high-minded:

Our mission is to raise public awareness around issues of criminal justice and the possibility for reform. But while we are nonpartisan, we are not neutral. Our hope is that by bringing transparency to the systemic problems that plague our courts and prisons, we can help stimulate a national conversation about how best to reform our system of crime and punishment.

Those that have been in the business of newspapering know what a leap of journalistic mission that means.

For decades — think Front Page and on — “criminal justice” haven’t been the words you hear in newsrooms. It’s Cops and Courts. The grizzled vet (and now the lesser-paid young hire) visits the cop shop and attends the highest-profile trials, writing the daily news that consumes so many metro sections. But these beats circle around the fact that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any other country, spending so much and remaining unsure of its effectiveness — a fact that gets relatively little attention in most of the press, whether print, TV, or radio. The words “mass incarceration” are ones now increasingly heard; “It will become a front-burner issue,” says Barsky.

Barsky and Keller see what’s possible and have hired a talented staff to take it on. Timing is everything, and the issue of criminal justice results and costs looks like it is emerging as one of few bipartisan issues in the country. (Good Dave Weigel piece in Bloomberg: “Rand Paul’s Crazy Dream of a Libertarian-Democratic Alliance on Civil Rights Is Actually Happening.”) A full-throated journalism that feeds the search for solutions may find many unexpected forums.

Rising to that occasion won’t be easy. Marshall looks well staffed editorially, but it may need to devote more “business” resources to its partnership/distribution/underwriting infrastructure. The Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Reporting offer proven lessons there, but it took them years to build out. The payoff is clear, though. In what seems like overnight journalistically, we’ve got a bevy of top-drawer news outlets from the legacies (the Times, the Journal, the Post, and more) to public media (Frontline, NPR, big metro public radio stations, PBS) to the foundation-fueled artisanal journalism houses (ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Marshall Project, and so on) forming what can truly be called a new ecosystem. We’re seeing critical mass in this hugely important space.

But don’t underestimate how much hard work is involved in making — and maintaining — all those connections. In some ways, it’s easier to run a singular newsroom, with singular resources. Keller has already learned that in his new job: “Partnerships are easy to launch,” he says, “and hard to land.”

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