Exit Interview: Bill Keller on his time at The Marshall Project

Bill Keller, Editor in Chief of The Marshall Project. Courtesy photo.

When Bill Keller announced in November 2018 that he would step down from his role of the editor in chief at The Marshall Project, a non-profit newsroom focused on stories about criminal justice, he wrote, “at a time of bitter partisanship and public cynicism, we’ve helped demonstrate the power of credible, fact-based reporting, and digital storytelling.”

Keller was instrumental in launching The Marshall Project in 2014, with Neil Barksy. In the last five years, The Marshall Project has partnered with more than 100 news organizations to cover stories about abuse and rape of inmates, private companies profiting from incarceration, and the treatment of juveniles and mentally ill inmates in American prisons. Their coverage has won them a Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, two Polk Awards, and an Edward R. Murrow award for “overall excellence.” The Marshall Project announced last week that Susan Chira will be taking over for Keller. Chira, who has spent the last four decades at The New York Times in various roles, was described by Keller as a “reporter’s editor.”

Prior to heading The Marshall Project, Keller worked at the Times as a reporter, bureau chief, editor, an op-ed columnist, and executive editor. After 30 years in the industry, he is set to retire this month. He plans on staying on the board of The Marshall Project and stay involved with its operations. He spoke with CJR’s Zainab Sultan in December, after announcing he would step down, to reflect on his career in journalism and his experience running a non-profit newsroom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What do you think was lacking in terms of criminal justice reporting when you started The Marshall Project?

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As a general rule, journalists are better at covering events than institutions. TV will cover the sensational court case or the riot in the prison, but the actual institutions don’t receive much attention. Advertisers aren’t thrilled at the idea of putting their ads around rape stories, and criminal justice as a subject makes a lot of readers uncomfortable. The local newscast mostly covers sensational crime, giving people the impression that crime is on the rise, when, in fact, we now have the lowest crime rates in decades.

 

Do you think that newsrooms focusing on a single subject is going to become more and more popular in the coming years?

It has become more popular in the last couple of years. Whether it is InsideClimate News, Chalkbeat doing education, or us doing criminal justice. I was really happy to see that there are a few places trying to use nonprofit models to replace some of the local journalism that has been decimated. The New York Times and the Daily News and New York Post still cover New York City, but less than they used to, and less than the city deserves.

 

Is there any particular difference between being a single subject non-profit newsroom and a traditional journalistic newsroom?

We are consciously looking for things that aren’t being covered elsewhere. If a story is getting plenty of attention, we just aggregate it in our newsletter; we don’t send our precious small staff to go and do what’s already been done. And we look for aspects, context, and goals that were maybe missing in the initial reporting. We were fairly new to the game when [Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in] Ferguson, but we knew that we weren’t going to send a reporter down to Ferguson just to stand next to Anderson Cooper in the streets and talk about the mood of the crowd. Everyone thought that would be a waste of our time.

We’re not an advocacy group and we make a point of telling everybody that we are not an advocacy group. But, as our mission statement says, we are trying to create a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system, and we want to contribute to making the system more effective, fair, humane, and transparent. That’s not advocacy, but it’s a clear sense of purpose that you wouldn’t necessarily articulate if you were at the Times or The Washington Post or NPR.

 

You were a reporter at the Times, and then managed their op-ed page, and also served as an executive editor before launching The Marshall Project. How do you think you have transformed , as you moved from one role to another?

I spent the first 30 years swearing that I would never be an editor. I like the freedom of being a reporter. The best job in the world, in my view, is to be a foreign correspondent for places like the Times that actually cares about foreign news. The executive editor of the Times came to visit me in South Africa and we were driving through the countryside and he asked me if I would take on editing and I told him “I’d rather stick pencils in my eyes.” A few months later he sent me a note asking if I wanted to be the foreign editor. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to be an editor and then it’s another thing to say no to being a foreign editor of The New York Times.

It’s more satisfying to be a lower level editor, when you are actually connecting with reporters and dealing with stories every day, and less time worrying about budgets, policy, and delegating management responsibilities. The Marshall Project was something that I had to start  from scratch, which was really exciting. Second of all, it’s smaller enough so it’s got a different culture and it is intensely collegial.

 

Are there any stories that you regret publishing, whether at the Marshall Project or during your time at the Times?

There are too many of them that come to my mind. As a columnist, I had two op-eds where I supported America’s decision to go to war in Iraq. It is certainly one of the things that I’ve written that’s the most naive.

 

Did you ever figure out why you wrote the way you did?

Yes, I wrote a piece for Times magazine trying to be introspective about why I or so many other people that you would expect to be hostile to the war in Iraq weren’t. It’s complicated—a sense of patriotic fervor existed after 9/11, and journalists weren’t immune to it.

 

Do you see any particular story now that you think is getting the same kind of treatment in the news as the Iraq war?

Nothing on that scale and with such dire consequences. Until recently I would have said the war in Yemen was maybe the most under covered news story of our times but thanks to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, we are actually writing now about the war in Yemen.

 

I was looking at The Marshall Project’s 2017 diversity report. (The 2018 report was released in March.) It was clear in the report that diversity at The Marshall Project is higher when compared to others in the news industry. How have things changed in the past year?

What we’re talking about now at the Marshall Project is expanding beyond diversity to inclusion. When you start you need to make sure that you have a diverse staff. But once you’ve made some progress in hiring a diverse staff, you then have to make sure that they’re getting the full benefit of diversity. We’re also focusing now on making sure that we have professional development opportunities, and that we are grooming young reporters of color for management and editorial jobs if that’s what they want.

We’re also applying the different experiences of our staff to our coverage. We do have one staff person who is a formerly incarcerated person and we have a board member who is formerly incarcerated. We are one of those rare institutions where having served a sentence for a crime is actually an asset rather than a defect.

 

There has surely been a lot of discussions around diversifying newsrooms but in reality you still see a huge gap. What is it that other newsrooms are missing out when it comes to diversifying their staff?

The key is investing in young journalists and making sure that they have the skills and the desire to grow.  A lot of young journalists are put off by the history of not being welcome. I think a lot of young people of color who have gotten journalism education find it much easier to just go into sports journalism or cultural journalism. Not because that’s what they want to do, but that’s just the path of least resistance. There’s definitely a growing interest in writing about criminal justice, social justice, writing about what touched their lives. Several times you have to be willing to take a risk on somebody in whom you see great potential which hasn’t been realized yet.

 

What’s the most common criticism The Marshall Project has received? Is it about people mistakenly labeling you as an advocacy group or is there more to it?

We do get some of that. We have a pretty significant portion of our readership which is people who wake up thinking about criminal justice issues either because they work in the field, they cover it or are scholars or students who cover it. In that group, we’ve got credibility on the right and the left. But conservative politicians, and some prosecutors’ groups, see us as kind of advocacy organization. We’d go out of our way both to avoid writing stories that confirm that notion, and in explaining to people when we are interviewing them.

 

What have the challenges been for you in the past five years of running The Marshall Project?

We’ve been quite successful in some of the practicalities of getting funded. Every year we start out with a budget gap of maybe a million dollars and start a search of how to fill it.

When we started, we also didn’t want to grow too fast, you don’t want to hire a lot of reporters and not have enough editors to handle their work. But that’s a nice problem to have. We’ve already talked about diversity, and that has always been a high priority for us as we cover the criminal justice system which disproportionately affects people of color. So diversity is more important for us than it would be for a general purpose news organization.

 

What do you think is the future of journalism, and whether nonprofit news is where journalism is headed now?

I would be careful in predicting the future. Being nonprofit is not the solution, but it is one kind of a solution. There are few nonprofit newsrooms who are being recognized for strong investigative journalism. Kaiser Health News, ProPublica, the Center of Investigative Reporting, and a lot of others. They fill a gap, and stimulate other kinds of journalism.

 

Do you have any advice for your successor (now announced as Susan Chira)?

To me, what matters most is the commitment to the kind of accountability journalism we do, as opposed to clickbait. And the other thing is to protect and support that collegial culture we have at the project. It makes for a much more productive newsroom when people feel respected, when you accommodate their needs of their lives, beyond just what stories they produce for you lately. Not all newsrooms are like that.

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Zainab Sultan is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.