How two Marshall Project collaborations shined a light on prison payments

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The Washington Post this month published a story by Eli Hager, a staff writer for the nonprofit investigative outfit The Marshall Project. Hager’s reporting showed how some states and counties place a hefty financial burden on the low-income families of juvenile offenders by charging them for their children’s incarceration. Though Hager surveyed all 50 states for instances of such practices, his piece concentrated on Philadelphia—“the most colorful” example of the phenomenon, Hager says—where local advocacy had prompted city officials to consider changing the practice.  Within a day’s time, Hager’s story yielded the sort of impact that some journalists wait years for: Philadelphia abolished the billing practice.

One week later, the Marshall Project published another, tangentially-linked “pay-to-stay” collaboration, this time with the LA Times. The story combined painstaking detail and a broad narrative to detail how even those individuals convicted of some of the worst crimes in California are able to upgrade their prison digs by paying a fee. “What started out as an antidote to overcrowding,” according to the story, “has evolved into a two-tiered system that allows people convicted of serious crimes to buy their way into safer and more comfortable jail stays.”

“There are these stories people have done, like ‘Look at these luxury jails,’” says Alysia Santo, a Marshall Project staffer and the lead reporter on the piece. “But it wasn’t investigative in a sense. That’s what made our story different, the amount of investigation that we did.”

The Marshall Project’s pay-to-stay efforts are the most recent reminder of the clout that collaborative reporting can carry. The LA Times and The Washington Post have the reporting heft and large readerships typical of legacy news outlets, which can amplify the work of laser-focused nonprofits like the Marshall Project, which exclusively covers criminal justice matters.

“They’re a tight band, a digital start-up with a single mission, and we’re a large general-interest news organization that covers it all,” says Ann Gerhart, a senior editor-at-large at The Washington Post who edited Hager’s story. “It’s been a very complementary relationship.” She credits the partnership for helping The Washington Post “bring far more investigative and enterprise reporting on criminal justice to our readers.”

Marshall Project reporter Hager and his editors had a straightforward relationship with The Washington Post to produce and edit the eventual front page story. While the Marshall Project itself did most of the shaping and heavy editing, Hager (the lone byline on the story) says he sent it off to The Washington Post for further fact-checking and took questions from copy editors before the story ran on the front page.

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A few days before the story ran, there was potential for a competitive clash between the collaboration and the Philadelphia news media, which covered the same issue ahead of a pending City Council discussion on the topic. (The Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage included a story about how the city went after parents’ money for incarceration bills in October.) Instead, Marshall Project editors shrugged it off.

“Your heart sinks a little bit because you want people to think you’ve discovered the wheel,” Marshall Project Editor in Chief Bill Keller says. “But in fact most people in the country don’t see the Philadelphia press, and what Eli had done was … more ambitious. There was never any question of whether we would drop the piece.”

If the story is one that we want to pursue, and one that will be better as part of a collaboration, we owe it to our readers to do it.

Hager says he learned last year that advocates in Philadelphia were pushing the issue privately with the mayor’s office and, as long as it was kept under wraps, the city would consider abolishing the practice. But when advocates with the Sheller Center at Temple University, in partnership with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, felt the mayor’s office was dragging the issue out, a movement to abolish the billing practice began to move more publicly, says Hager. That push was strengthened by The Washington Post’s coverage, which provided what Hager terms a “moment of kind of national embarrassment,” and Philadelphia officials rescinded its policy.

The LA Times partnership was trickier to pursue. The Times had rejected Marshall Project pitches in the past. (“The first couple times we talked to the LA Times, they were not that interested,” says Keller.) And—if you want to think of it in competitive terms—the Marshall Project was approaching the Times with an investigative story in the paper’s backyard, with a lot of digging already done.

But things played out differently: Keller says he asked the Times for a reporter to help advance the work his outfit had already done, and the Times put forward Victoria Kim, who worked with Marshall Project reporters Anna Flagg and Alysia Santo, a CJR alum. “It was a real partnership,” Keller says. “That’s what was necessary for them to buy into that. They’re going to be more receptive in the future.”

Times deputy managing editor Scott Kraft, one of the editors who worked on the stories, says that his paper prefers full partnerships—where the newspaper’s reporters, editors and photographers contribute substantially to the final product. The arrangement with the Marshall Project “made the decision to join forces pretty easy,” Kraft says in an email. “If the story is one that we want to pursue, and one that will be better as part of a collaboration, we owe it to our readers to do it.”

Santo, the Marshall Project reporter, says the LA Times story never would have come together without Kim. The two journalists, with the Marshall Project’s Anna Flagg, painstakingly pushed officials to obtain records, in some cases getting lawyers involved. The trio then cleaned and scrubbed the data that made the story possible, and Flagg detailed their methodology in a companion piece for the Times.

Kim’s physical presence in Los Angeles also proved to be a vital part of the collaboration’s success. The Marshall Project is based in New York; having one reporter in Los Angeles enabled the team to push records issues in person, says Santo.

“The courts were saying ‘We lost it, we don’t know where it is,’” says Santo. “I don’t think they were lying. It can take being that annoying to get what you need sometimes.” Pushing forward a story that had been hiding in plain sight took both an outside and an inside perspective; the Marshall Project was able to look at details from the proverbial 30,000 feet after the nitty gritty digging was done.

Santo, a CJR alum, says the response to her team’s story was heartening. And while the future of pay-to-stay remains unclear, her story raised several fundamental questions that persist alongside such practices. “Why are people willing to pay upwards of $70,000 to avoid those facilities that our society created to mete out punishment?” she asks. Santo adds that she plans to continue to dig into the two-tiered justice system.

“We [as a society] must have accepted it,” Santo says. “Because it exists at almost every level.”

Keller says there are no current plans on the horizon for other regional partnerships for pay-to-stay stories. However, there are certainly other partnerships ahead; today, The New York Times published “Death on a Prison Bus,” a story about safety concerns tied to extradition companies, co-authored by Hager and Santo.

When asked about the potential for competition (rather than cooperation) between newsrooms like those at the Marshall Project and the LA Times, Kraft, the Times’s deputy managing editor, says, “I’m not sure I accept the premise.” He brings up the Panama Papers as “just one example of so-called ‘competitors’ working together to create a better story and a better project. Sometimes we compete, sometimes we collaborate. For us, it’s all about how to get the best story.”

That said, some newsrooms may feel more territorial than others. Even though the Panama Papers marked a historic instance of collaboration, some of the biggest US news outlets were absent from the telling. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ deputy director Marina Walker, part of the team which produced and organized Panama Paper stories, told The New York Times about the difficulty of such partnerships. “We do not always pick the biggest media organizations to work with,” she said. “We pick those that will be collaborative.”

Journalists can find ways to ignore scoops from rivals, or wrap them anonymously into other coverage (or take to Twitter to diss them). Keller, the former top editor at The New York Times, knows what it’s like to be at the institutional behemoth. Now, he says, “We seek to write what the big guys are missing or misunderstanding.” If The New York Times or another paper does a big project on a criminal justice-related issue, the Marshall Project can aggregate the link for its newsletter, and its reporters don’t have to tackle the subject, Keller says.

And, as Hager put it, just because The Washington Post has a huge stable of reporters doesn’t mean that every story has to be a competitive one. “There’s an awful lot of stories,” he says, “and an awful lot of problems in the criminal justice system.”

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Jeremy Borden is an independent journalist based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.