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Feb. 10, 2014, 3:25 p.m.
Business Models

Bill Keller, The Marshall Project, and making single-focus nonprofit news sites work

The former New York Times executive editor explains why he’s jumping to a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice issues.

“When you have a startup, one of the most challenging things is to establish yourself as a credible news organization,” Neil Barsky, founder of a new news nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues, told me.

nytkellermugOne quick route there: Hire Bill Keller.

That’s what Barsky did for the Marshall Project yesterday, bringing the former New York Times executive editor over to be its first editor-in-chief.

We’re at a point in the evolution of nonprofit news organizations where metaphors become more useful. Is this a single-topic ProPublica? An InsideClimate News for courts and prisons? Like ProPublica, the Marshall Project came to public notice with the hiring of a big newspaper name (The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Steiger); like InsideClimate News, it aims to focus dedicated attention to a large, systemic problem that sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day news budgets of other outlets.

marshall_project_logoThe Marshall Project sounds like a mix of both, at a time when we’re seeing a wider variety of models debuting across the news web, from First Look Media to Vox’s Project X to the new FiveThirtyEight. Keller said it’s an era of “invention and re-invention,” and Barsky — a former Journal reporter who became a hedge fund manager — offered a chance to be a part of it that he couldn’t ignore.

“Part of the appeal of it is that it’s scary,” Keller told me Monday. “I’ve spent the last 30 years operating over the safety net of The New York Times, which is great. But the opportunity to start something from scratch, to build it yourself and really make it the way you want, is pretty cool and challenging.”

Keller said the response to his jump to the Marshall Project has been overwhelming. “Usually when I get this many emails in my inbox it means I’ve pissed someone off,” he said.

The nonprofit’s annual operating budget will be $4 million to $5 million, with the funding coming from Barsky, philanthropies, and a number of donors. Barsky estimates that will make for a newsroom headcount in the mid-20s.

While many of the particulars are still being discussed, what Keller and Barsky want to create is a site that produces both short- and long-term investigations that can be distributed on the web and through partnerships. Keller said he expects to take some cues from ProPublica, partnering with other news organizations on some investigations that will help combine resources and expand the reach of a story. (Under Keller’s watch, the Times and ProPublica collaborated on the Pulitzer-winning investigation into hospital deaths during Hurricane Katrina.)

Moving from the Times to the Marshall Project will mean a shift in scale for Keller. While the Times offers vast resources, they are spread across, well, all the news that’s fit to print. Keller said reporters for the Project will provide persistent coverage on stories over time. Keller sees The Marshall Project as a single-issue site with a million story possibilities, covering sentencing reforms, prosecutorial misconduct, and the war on drugs. “The stories out there are really rich, but they add up to something,” Keller said.

One big obstacle the nonprofit will face is growing an audience. “There will be a sort of automatic fraternity, or sorority, of people who are experts in the field, academics who study the criminal justice system, corrections officers — those people will make us a regular stop,” he said. “The real effort will be to raise these issues with the general public. And that’s where you need social media.” (Keller has a notably mixed set of feelings about social media.)

Barsky said he knows there will be financial support available for a news organizations focusing solely on criminal justice. He expects much of its funding will come from issue-specific foundations and philanthropy, as well as individual donors who want to make a contribution to a meaningful cause. (Presumably, with his Wall Street background, Barsky knows some people.) That funding mix will be important. Unlike ProPublica, which had a large sum of initial funding from the Sandler family committed up front, Barsky says the site will need to raise its budget annually, either through philanthropy or earned revenue.

But looking over the journalism landscape, Barsky said he believes nonprofit journalism has the potential to be more sustainable over time than for-profit journalism. “A nonprofit organization has to sustain itself by being excellent and having an impact. So does for-profit, frankly,” he said. “But the difference is there are people of good will out there who are willing to support us if we do great work.”

(Wondering about the name? The Marshall in question is Thurgood Marshall. “I was inspired after reading Devil in the Grove, which depicts Marshall’s courageous efforts to spare the lives of four black men falsely accused of rape,” Barsky said.)

The landscape for nonprofit news is still relatively young, but has shown signs of maturing as some organizations have found success in diversifying their business models beyond philanthropy. The Texas Tribune is probably the poster child of revenue diversity, but it’s something others in the criminal justice nonprofit news world have sought. Leonard Witt, publisher of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, said finding funding is a constant issue for nonprofit news sites. Based at the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University, JJIE publishes news and research on juvenile justice issues. Since its launch in 2010, the Exchange has relied on funding from places like The Harnisch Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation, among others.

The narrow focus of JJIE has helped in fundraising efforts, as has the gradual growth of the site’s readership over time. But Witt said they’ve had tried to find other ways to support its mission, through things like events and even publishing Youth Today, a magazine for youth services workers that provides subscription and advertising income. “Any nonprofit has to find as many revenue streams as possible,” he said.

Keller said he’s hopeful that The Marshall Project will be able to capture an audience because there is a growing concern about the state of criminal justice in the U.S. That’s one reason Keller said he doesn’t see The Marshall Project as advocacy-driven, but “journalism with a sense of purpose.” Both Keller and Barsky agree that they want the site to bring more visibility to the problems with America’s courts and prisons.

Keller said his career as a journalist has provided plenty of opportunities, particularly at the Times, where he covered varied beats before joining the editing ranks. It’s because of that perspective, and seeing the transformation taking place in the industry, that he believes audiences — and funders — will support The Marshall Project.

“Ten years ago that would seem bizarre and speculative,” he said. “I guess it is a little speculative, but it’s no longer bizarre. It’s the new normal.”

POSTED     Feb. 10, 2014, 3:25 p.m.
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