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Jan. 30, 2024, 2:52 p.m.

The Garrison Project wants to bridge the gap between national and local criminal justice reporting

“The story is less at [the U.S. Department of Justice] than with sheriffs and prosecutors at the local level, mostly the county level.” But how do you tell that story when local news is in decline?

The Garrison Project is not your standard digital news organization.

It’s produced a total of 48 stories about criminal justice issues in a bit more than two years — hardly the publishing pace of a typical startup. You can read those articles on its website, but their presence there feels almost perfunctory. It produces local news, but not in a single location; it swings from Texas to Florida to New York, Baltimore to San Francisco to Baton Rouge. It doesn’t sell ads, or subscriptions, or anything, really.

But its oddness is one of the few things that’s made me optimistic about where American journalism is headed in 2024. Being a news publisher today can be punishingly hard. But maybe there’s a way to be a news producer without all the agony of running the entire journalism assembly line — from story idea all the way to pushing it out on social.

“Building an audience to a specific site is incredibly hard,” Ethan Brown, Garrison’s founder and editor-in-chief, told me. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do hard things — I do. But I’d much rather be doing hard things in the stories, in the journalism, you know what I mean?”

If you’re trying to think of a good point of comparison to The Garrison Project, the most obvious place to start is The Marshall Project. Start, most obviously, with the names — one honoring the late Supreme Court justice and civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, the other the 19th-century abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison. They also cover similar subject matter. The Marshall Project “seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system [and] have an impact on the system through journalism, rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.” The Garrison Project “addresses the crisis of mass incarceration, policing, and criminalization through investigative reporting and analysis.”

But there are important differences. While Marshall has a staff of 73 and an annual budget around $15 million, Brown is the only person working on Garrison full-time, and its budget tops out in the hundreds of thousands.

And while Marshall — like other national nonprofit news sites — does a lot of its work in partnership with other news organizations, that’s all that Garrison does. Brown serves as a central editing hub for a network of dozens of freelancers across the country, all of whom share an interest in the complex intersection of policing, prisons, and courts.

Brown moved from New York to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. For anyone interested in criminal justice reporting, Louisiana — my home state — is a kind of ersatz wonderland. It’s home to the highest incarceration rate in the world, the highest murder rate of any state for 31 straight years, an infamously brutal prison system, and astonishing levels of police violence, abuse, corruption, and misconduct. And The Garrison Project has done plenty of work on Louisiana justice, like on this police “torture warehouse” in Baton Rouge (published in Slate), this questionable death penalty case in West Monroe (in The New Republic), and mental health care in New Orleans jails (in local news site The Lens).

But criminal justice is simultaneously a highly localized and deeply systemic subject. Concerns about police misconduct and courtroom injustices can be found in every state, but the specific players involved are typically local sheriffs, local jailers, local district attorneys, and local judges. Effective national reporting is hampered by both that balkanization and the terrible state of national data. (A whopping 32% of American law enforcement agencies don’t report any crime data to the FBI, and an additional 24% report only partial data.)

When he was an editor at like-minded site The Appeal, Brown said, it was “kind of a radical idea” for a national news org to be so focused on local criminal justice issues. “If you looked at a pie chart of the mass incarceration problem, the pie is almost entirely state and local,” he said. “The federal piece of the pie is minuscule. The story is less at DOJ than with sheriffs and prosecutors at the local level, mostly the county level.”1

Garrison’s origin story begins with Brown, whose background combines three useful sets of skills. First, he’s written a lot about criminal justice, including in his four books, most recently Murder in the Bayou, which digs into the “Jeff Davis 8,” eight women found murdered near the small Louisiana town of Jennings. (The book became a Showtime documentary series.)

Second, he has lots of contacts with freelancers around the country, thanks to those years he spent as The Appeal’s enterprise editor. (He left after the site’s odd “sunsetting” in June 2021; it was reborn a few months later under different management.)

And finally — and most uniquely — he had nearly a decade of experience working inside the criminal justice system as a mitigation specialist for attorneys representing death-penalty defendants, mostly in Louisiana and surrounding states. That work meant hundreds of visits to prisons around the region and country — including ones reporters don’t typically get access too.

“The New York Times Magazine did a front-page story on ADMAX in Colorado, the highest-security prison in the world,” Brown said. “I don’t think a journalist has ever been inside there — the journalists who wrote that piece didn’t.”

The idea dates back to 2017, when someone from a foundation named the Vital Projects Fund reached out to Brown. (VPF grew out of the estate of businessman Horace W. Goldsmith, who died in 1980; it has been, among other things, an opponent of the death penalty.) The fund was getting lots of requests from journalists for small grants — $3,000, $5,000, that range — to support specific reporting projects around criminal justice. But taking time to evaluate them all was outside their wheelhouse — could Brown do it for them? He agreed, and that project became known as the Garrison Fund, based at Investigative Reporters and Editors.

The fund stage didn’t last long because Brown joined The Appeal later that year. But the idea stuck with him, and when The Appeal collapsed in 2021, he returned to it. “I had this network from when I was at The Appeal of reporters all over the place, doing really great county-level or municipal-level criminal justice coverage. Reporters in Baltimore, reporters in the Bay Area, reporters from Los Angeles, and on and on. And I wanted to edit place-specific criminal justice reporting — but not just in one place, right? So I thought back to the Garrison Fund.”

Garrison Project stories can come from freelancers who pitch or from an idea Brown tries to connect to the right reporter. Once it’s taken shape, they figure out the right outlet to pitch it to. Sometimes that’s a national outlet (Rolling Stone, HuffPost, The Daily Beast, The Intercept), other times a local one (Pittsburgh City Paper, Raleigh News & Observer, Baltimore Brew, New York). The pitch offers two key benefits to the news outlet. First, Brown will do the first substantive edits, including rigorous fact-checking, so what the publication gets is closer to the finished product than a typical first draft would be. And Garrison will pay either part or all of the reporter’s freelance fee — usually at $1.25 a word, a number he called “good but not amazing.” Those both reduce the strain a complex criminal justice story can impose on a news outlet likely dealing with its own cutbacks.

“Anything that’s successful is really only being successful because of the team — all the parts of the team, the reporter, the editor, the fact checker, and so on,” he said. “I think a huge missing piece in journalism today is that most people don’t have the benefit of those kinds of teams bringing their work to publication. So anything we can to provide support and minimize the chaos of editing is good.” (He describes chaos thusly: “Hey, let’s just put it in a Google Doc and have five people editing it at once.”)

The results have been positive, he said, with several Garrison-incubated stories becoming big traffic hits for outlets. (“I want these pieces to be able to be read by anybody, not just someone who’s deep into this stuff.”)

To be clear: A nonprofit news outlet doing work that will be published elsewhere is not a new idea. Outlets like the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity have been doing it since the 1980s, when publishing through established media companies was just about the only option. And their digital-born successors — ProPublica, Chalkbeat, The Texas Tribune, The Hechinger Report, and so on — have all, to varing degrees, made partnerships core to their model.

But those are also all still very much news organizations, with all the structural requirements that come with that aspiration. They all want to drive traffic. Words like “audience” and “engagement” show up in their job titles. Where Garrison is unusual is in its total avoidance of the distribution end of journalism, which it is happy to leave to others.

The Garrison Project’s work thus far has been funded primarily by foundations who push for criminal justice reform. (Top donors are the aforementioned Vital Projects Fund, Just Impact Advisors, the Barton Family Fund, The Just Trust, the Meadow Fund, and the Scorpio Rising Fund. Legally speaking, it’s still based at IRE, which serves as its fiscal sponsor.) But Brown says he plans to expand his fundraising toward journalism-oriented donors as well.

“I would honestly like to be over $1 million” in annual budget, he said. “I’d certainly like to pay writers more. And there’s larger, more ambitious stuff — like, is there a 15,000 word piece that we want to chase? Is there a way to do documentaries or podcasts or things like that?” At current levels, Garrison mostly funds enterprise work at a 3,000- to 5,000-word length.

(“Actually, I really like that space. I think you can get a lot accomplished in that space. It’s a very non-self-indulgent length and sort of self-selects out of things that I find very indulgent. Like, ‘here’s 20,000 words about an innocence case.’ Okay, it’s very sad, but why are we reading about this? What does it mean locally? Who in the system does it connect you to? What practices in the system? Those longform pieces often do not answer those questions for me. And I think — I say this not because this person is my friend, but also because it’s true — pretty much the sole exception for me is Pam Colloff.”)

Here’s why Garrison interests me. We all know the state of the industry over the past couple decades. (Hint: It’s not good.) But the ways that philanthropic energy — by which I mean money — has addressed the problem have shifted over that time.

Ten or fifteen years ago, for example, you saw the Knight Foundation investing heavily in tools and ideas that could drive innovations that could be applied industry-wide. Most of them left little impact, yes; that was predictable by all involved, inherent to the VC-like approach of funding lots of small bets. That strategy led to lots of grumbling among people who were trying to fill the specific news voids that declining newspapers were leaving in their communities. “Why is Knight funding these dumb widgets and random experiments,” you’d hear over (likely Knight-purchased) beers at conferences, “when they should be paying for reporters to do reporting?”

Over time, that paradigm shifted. Today, the capacity building from foundations is much more directed at individual news outlets. Efforts like the American Journalism Project and the nascent Press Forward are aimed at building a network (er, “portfolio”) of standalone news organizations in places like Wichita, Hartford, and El Paso.

I think this is, on the whole, a positive evolution. We know more now about what makes for a successful digital news site. The declines of old-order local news outlets have grown steeper; the goal is increasingly replacing the local newspaper rather than just supplementing it. And the returns on those investments are less risky — they’ll be producing quality journalism on Day 1.

But I wonder sometimes if we’ve swung too far in that direction. We have a better appreciation now for how small the local news market is, how low the demand can be in a universe of infinite alternatives. The job of producing good journalism feels increasingly disconnected from the job of getting it in front of an audience. In a time of constrained resources, why make everyone solve the audience problem to do journalism?

In that sort of environment, something like the Garrison Project — complex criminal justice reporting as a service — is interesting. Imagine a larger version of it that could work with local reporters and bring specialized skills to outlets that wouldn’t otherwise have them in-house. Then imagine the same model but applied to other local/national beats — higher education, say, or health care, or campaign finance. Then imagine it applied to specific journalism skill, like crunching education data, understanding complex infrastructure issues, or assembling massive datasets. Or even to certain broader needs of local outlets — like advanced FOIA work or legal defense against SLAPP-style litigation.

In other words, can we do more to build (horizontal) national support structures for all the (vertical) new outlets that are the future of local news? Most of those outlets will never reach the size of 20th-century newspaper newsrooms, the scale that allowed the good ones to bring all sorts of specialized expertise in-house. Are there ways to let them access that expertise from outside? Can that expertise be useful in getting readers to turn into subscribers — and in solidifying these new local institutions?

“The flaw in this model is the fast disappearance of news organizations,” Brown says. “I’m a pessimist about the future of journalism, but even my pessimism has been exceeded by the shrinkage so far in 2024.” I suspect more efforts like The Garrison Project could be useful in making sure there’ll still be outlets to publish in.

Photo of a 2020 Washington, D.C. protest by Gayatri Malhotra.

  1. One analog would be reporting on voting rights and other election issues — a subject of national interest but governed almost entirely by local and state officials. Bolts — a site founded by fellow Appeal alum Daniel Nichanian — is doing something similarly national/local on that beat. ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 30, 2024, 2:52 p.m.
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