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Aug. 10, 2015, 10:30 a.m.
Business Models

As it grows, The Marshall Project finds plenty of partners, but fundraising is still not easy

“People see us as a pantheon of good American journalism,” founder and chairman Neil Barsky said. “But we’ll still be fundraising for the rest of our professional lives.”

The U.S. criminal justice system is in the spotlight. Presidential candidates are speaking out on reforms without hesitation. Each new disturbing video of a police encounter gone wrong — Sandra Bland’s arrestSamuel DuBose’s shooting — brings a torrent of sympathy, fury, and calls for reform, often from voices new to the cause of criminal justice reform: Singer John Legend, for instance, recently launched his own initiative “Free America,” in collaboration with the ACLU.

Within this intense climate, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site focused on criminal justice, hopes to carve out a space as a “dynamic hub for the most significant news and comment” on such issues.

“[W]hile we are nonpartisan, we are not neutral,” The Marshall Project’s mission statement reads. “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.” (Staffers are careful to emphasize that the site is “mission-driven,” not advocacy: they write plenty about the death penalty, for instance, but there is no discernible “Marshall Project prescription” on the issue.)

How has it fared? In the eight months since its official launch,1 The Marshall Project has bolstered its modest homepage with a mix of shorter commentary, topical analysis, and cultural interest pieces. It has small followings on Facebook (17,121 page likes at the writing of this story) and Twitter (just over 20,000 followers), but emails its morning newsletter, “Opening Statement,” to around 15,000 subscribers. More impressively, though, the site has already published 33 collaborations with other news outlets,2 an efficient deployment of the ProPublica-pioneered model of partnerships.

“For about the first fifteen minutes of our existence, we thought of ourselves as a ‘ProPublica for criminal justice,'” Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, told me. But the vision for the site has grown beyond that formula. “Dysfunction in the criminal justice system is still cornerstone of what we’re doing, but a place of our scale cannot sustain itself as a hub of conversation by doing investigative pieces [only] once a month, or even twice a month. So we very quickly added a more of a daily presence.”

One way the site built up a more regular presence was through its Opening Statement newsletter, a roundup of all the best new reporting and writing published in the realm of criminal justice. Keller said the newsletter reaches the site’s core audience of “people in the Justice Department, lawyers and corrections officials, and scholars and advocates for various aspects of criminal justice.”

The Marshall Project also diversified the types of stories it publishes, to “stimulate the appetite of [its] readers” and to let its “reporters flex their muscles.” At least one or two new pieces appear on the site every day; it’s now rare for the homepage to go a day without an update, managing editor Gabriel Dance told me.

Some of the site’s lighter, non-investigative fare (which still tends to be pretty heavy, since the pieces have to relate to criminal justice) provides more oblique takes on cultural phenomena like Orange Is the New Black, a Netflix series about a women’s prison, and Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman.

A Q&A with David Simon, creator of the HBO crime drama The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, was “the single most viral piece we’ve done,” Keller said. (Hearing him use the word “viral” was strange, but it was also indicative of how thinking changes when one moves from a traditional news organization to a digital startup.) A graphics-heavy story on prison meals, in which the reporters recreated meals from a few jails around the country to highlight the “ongoing fight for more, and better, prison food,” also did “surprisingly” well, according to The Marshall Project audience editor Blair Hickman.


“We all liked [the piece], but it was a surprise to us how well it did,” Hickman said. “We want to try and balance targeting people who have influence in criminal justice system — law students, judges, state policymakers — and attracting a general audience to get some mass attention to these issues, but that’s an interesting balance to strike because those people crave very different kinds of stories.”

Hickman has noticed that stories about class and the prison system do well on Facebook, sometimes attracting comments from people who seem to have direct knowledge of the system. On Twitter, meanwhile, interest skews toward politics and policy. Like any other digital outfit, The Marshall Project tweaks headlines to help stories perform better on social, and it has hosted conversations on Facebook and Reddit. Still, nobody I spoke to there seemed overly anxious about clicks.

“I honestly can’t tell you, when we post a piece, if it’s going to be a viral success,” Keller said. “It matters that a lot of people read your stuff, but it’s not what drives us, particularly.”

Partnerships help to attract more eyeballs. A friend once warned Keller that partnerships are “a huge pain in the ass,” but he says he’s not really found that to be true. So far The Marshall Project has collaborated on 33 major stories with 21 different organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Matter, Vice, Fusion, PBS Frontline, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and others. It frequently reprints its material on sites like The Huffington Post and Newsweek, sometimes simultaneously. A collaboration with New York Magazine that looked at the lives of people inside Rikers Island involved one reporter-researcher from the magazine and seven from The Marshall Project, as well as a team from the magazine to help lay out the story for print.


A recent reader survey revealed that Marshall Project readers skew relatively young — many in their late twenties and thirties — and a sizable number work in criminal justice already.3) Partnerships help the site extend beyond that demographic. Keller and The Marshall Project founder and chairman Neil Barsky both mentioned that policymakers often “still live in an analog world” and prefer opening up a print newspaper or turning to broadcast every morning — so collaborations with papers like The Washington Post make sense. Collaborations with outlets like Vice, meanwhile, are meant to reach millennials.

Partnerships don’t drive much traffic back to the homepage (The Marshall Project’s homepage visits primarily come via Google and direct traffic), and the team is looking at other ways to measure the impact its stories have in the world of criminal justice. (Expect eventual integration of impact tracking into analytics, Hickman said.)

“Partnerships have been crucial for us [to get] help around the edges that we can’t provide ourselves,” managing editor Dance said. Coordinating several sets of editors and reporters can be challenging, but the added resources have been a huge boon. The Washington Post, for instance, always sends photographers, Frontline sends a video team, and Dance is currently working directly with the FiveThirtyEight interactives team.

“For the parole project [with The Washington Post], I did the graphics myself with our data editor Tom Meagher, and I did the graphics for our launch project on legal delays [also with the Post] with our reporter Ken Armstrong. We’ve given the Post those graphics both times,” Dance said.

“We’re very by the seat of our pants, very startup-y, still — I mean, Bill still edits our newsletter,” Dance added. “We have grown into the size of clothing that we could afford to buy…but we could grow at a much higher rate.”

Dance, previously interactive editor for The Guardian U.S., said he would love to do more with interactives (“he’s been busy managing a team to build up our website, and we’d really like to free him up to do digital storytelling,” Keller told me), and is currently hiring an interactives journalist for his team. The team also hopes to ramp up political coverage as the campaign season gets underway. Barsky even envisions a TV series involving role-playing dramatizations, in which real officials would reenact criminal justice scenarios for viewers.

As a startup, The Marshall Project has had to stay lean. Its yearly budget is $5 million, and it has nine reporters (with a total staff of 25). Its funders include familiar names like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation (also a funder for another new single-focus news site, The Seventy Four). Barsky said The Marshall Project is considering other sources of revenue, such as events, membership plans, and even advertising, but those aren’t intended to make up the bulk of the funding. (Barsky has funded some of the site himself.)

“Bill’s done a marvelous job of helping us create a sense of quality and gravitas among journalists and criminal justice professionals. People see us as a pantheon of good American journalism,” Barsky said. “But we’ll still be fundraising for the rest of our professional lives.” Being a nonprofit provides some relief because there’s no pressure from advertisers to hit traffic numbers, and Barsky is confident about funding at least through 2016.

Dance said that while he’s been pleasantly surprised by the many organizations that want to partner with The Marshall Project, he’d hoped there’d be more donations from wealthy individuals coming in by now, once “they saw the high-quality content we put out.”

“This is not to say we aren’t raising money, but people who are interested in giving money to criminal justice are often interested in giving money to advocacy groups,” he said. “Which I understand — they want to know their money is going to change something specifically. We say, yes, we’d love your donation, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t report on you guys.”

“Some days, some months, everything goes right, and some months nobody returns your calls,” Barsky said. “You just have to step back and look at the results overall. Roughly two years ago, when we first started talking about this, it was such a fantasy that presidential candidates would be talking about criminal justice reform. But criminal justice issues have risen to the fore, and I think The Marshall Project is helping lead that conversation.”

  1. Though The Marshall Project made a splash in February 2014 with the hiring of Bill Keller away from The New York Times the site formally launched mid-November last year. []
  2. This number includes only projects where The Marshall Project and another news organization (or two) both contributed resources to reporting, editing, graphics, and promotion. []
  3. Many people who filled out the survey were subscribers of the morning newsletter, so the stats are a snapshot of that group, Hickman said. []
POSTED     Aug. 10, 2015, 10:30 a.m.
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