Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, will leave the paper to become editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news startup that will cover the American criminal justice system.
“It was a combination of the subject matter and the prospect of building something from scratch,” that drew him to the Project, Keller said. Although he hasn’t specialized in criminal justice reporting, Keller said he has always been interested in it as a reader and was excited by Marshall Project founder and publisher Neil Barsky’s vision for the site.
Keller sees the project, which plans to have a staff of around 30, as “kind of a hub” for people interested in criminal justice—everyone from academics and corrections officers to researchers and journalists. The site will feature original reporting, aggregation, commentary, and opinion, some of it written by prisoners or those otherwise involved in the system, and videos on various issues. “If you’re going to do all of this, you have to be ambitious about it,” Keller said.
David Krajicek, one of the founders of Criminal Justice Journalists, the national association of criminal justice reporters, thinks the Marshall Project is “a splendid idea.”
“There’s no question that there’s a pressing need for beat journalism of every kind, and criminal justice is no different,” he said. “The state of criminal justice reporting is reflected by the overall state of journalism,” he added, saying that there are fewer beat reporters covering prisons, and in many medium-sized cities, the courts are only covered on a part-time basis, with journalists reporting on specific trials or arraignments.
Krajicek added that advocacy groups are doing great work on civil rights issues, but “they only surface in the media occasionally, and I think that the Marshall Project, or something like the Marshall Project, could bring attention to some of the important stories that don’t get the airtime and ink that they should,” he said.
And the Project won’t be treading the same ground as the Crime Report, the news service published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (Krajicek writes for the site.) “I think that the Crime Report has a niche as providing a daily digest of crime news, and some smart commentary and key pieces. But I think that, as described, the Marshall Project will involve more journalists,” Krajicek said. The Crime Report is maintained by
half a dozen part-time two full-time and half a dozen part-time staff; the Marshall Project hopes to hire five times as many journalists. “You can’t really compare the potential of the Marshall Project with what the Crime Report does,” he said.
Barsky, who is chairman of CJR’s board of overseers, said the Marshall Project will be able to invest more time and money in criminal justice reporting than other organizations might have the resources to, particularly in the form of investigative reporting.
And he hopes the Marshall Project will help spark a national conversation on America’s justice system. “Right now, it’s possible to run for president, or senate, or congress, and never mention incarceration, or mandatory sentencing and drugs,” he said. “There’s a sense of tolerance for the status quo.”
The road for startups that tackle America’s justice system can be bumpy. Homicide Watch DC, which covers homicides in the Washington DC area from crime to conviction, received great acclaim but struggled to find funding. The site went on hiatus before relaunching last summer thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.
The Marshall Project will be funded by both foundations and individual donors, and should launch in the second quarter of the year.