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Nov. 15, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
Business Models

The Marshall Project, an early model for single-subject nonprofit news sites, turns five today (and got a shoutout on Jeopardy last night)

“As a former journalist, I was mindful of the power of honest storytelling. As an idealist, I felt that if only Americans knew the truth, changes would soon follow.”

The Marshall Project, the criminal justice news nonprofit, marks five years of publishing today. (And what better way to celebrate than to be the answer to a Jeopardy question last night. Er, the question to a Jeopardy answer.) Founder and chairman Neil Barsky wrote in a blog post:

I founded The Marshall Project five years ago to address two urgent needs: first, I believed our criminal justice system, and the mass incarceration it spawned, was a national disgrace. At the same time, I was mindful that there were already thousands of committed individuals fighting for reform in the courts and on the streets.

What we needed was a national conversation that would prompt people to understand the urgency of criminal justice reform. The idea that we had become the world’s largest jailer — that there were more people incarcerated or on parole or probation in the U.S. than live in the countries of Libya, Lebanon or Laos— was at the periphery of American consciousness. As a former journalist, I was mindful of the power of honest storytelling. As an idealist, I felt that if only Americans knew the truth, changes would soon follow.

The second phenomenon I wanted to address was the collapse of the journalism business model. Massive layoffs, or newspaper closures, were the order of the day, and it was clear that nonprofit journalism held one key to journalism’s future. I realized that The Marshall Project needed to make a case for itself to funders. Since our launch, I have been heartened by the response we’ve had from the funding community. Most people intuitively understand the power of non-partisan journalism.

The Marshall Project made headlines even before launch when Bill Keller, the former New York Times executive editor, announced that he would join it as its founding editor-in-chief, a role he held until he retired in April and was succeeded by Susan Chira, also a veteran Times editor. Back in 2014, Nieman Lab reported:

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,” [Keller] 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 organization 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.

While The Marshall Project certainly wasn’t the first digital nonprofit news outlet, it was part of an important wave of single-subject, national nonprofit news sites — a wave that also included education news nonprofit Chalkbeat (launched in 2013), gun violence news nonprofit The Trace (launched in 2015), and the News Deeply sites (the first of which was launched in 2012, and which have now largely ceased publication.) Today, according to the most recent data from the Institute for Nonprofit News, 21 percent of nonprofit news outlets concentrate on in-depth coverage of a single topic.

Because of their focus, single-subject nonprofit outlets sometimes get accused of being too activist in their orientation, and The Marshall Project has also been influential in shaping how that conversation happens. While it considers itself nonpartisan, it is unapologetic about declaring the American criminal justice a crisis in need of attention. As it described itself in job listings: “We are not advocates but we have a declared mission: to create and sustain a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system.” Or as Barsky puts it: “Our tool is journalism. Our goal is justice.”

Its singular focus has led The Marshall Project to success — a raft of awards, including a Pulitzer in 2016, barely 18 months into its publishing existence. (That Pulitzer-winning story, which was co-published with ProPublica, has since become an acclaimed Netflix series.) It’s co-published and partnered with more than 140 other news organizations. It’s done much to bring forth the voices of incarcerated people, as well as creating a print publication, called News Inside, that specifically targets them as readers.

It’s also been a leader among news organizations in increasing its commitment to diversity — critical for a site that regularly covers racial disparities in the criminal justice system. At launch five years ago, its leadership was “entirely white and predominantly male,” and its newsroom had only two black staff writers. Today, The Marshall Project’s staff is only 51 percent white; it’s also 57 percent female, with women in the top two positions (Chira and president Carroll Bogert). Its total staff now sits at 37 people, up from 19 at launch. (It’s currently hiring a design director and a head of audience development.)

But despite all those editorial successes, fundraising still hasn’t always been easy. Like plenty of other nonprofits, The Marshall Project is turning to its readers for support, though its annual budget, now at $7 million, is still largely covered by grants and large gifts from individuals and family foundations. (For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, it pulled in $4.4 million from those individuals/family foundations, $2.8 million from foundation grants, and $410,000, or about 5 percent of total revenue, from members.)

Over the next few years, The Marshall Project plans to increase its annual budget to $10 million, the nonprofit said in its most recent annual report — up from $5 million at launch. And, let’s not forget, it was on Jeopardy last night.

POSTED     Nov. 15, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
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