December 7, 2021

For Marshall Project founder and chairman Neil Barsky, 2021 proved to be a particularly satisfying year. With new editor Susan Chira well settled in, the nonprofit criminal justice site won its second Pulitzer. After steady expansion, staff has grown to 48 and annual revenue to more than $11 million.

All of which suggested to Barsky that the site was well-positioned for the future, and it was time for him to move on to other projects — as he will at the end of this month.

Besides its considerable journalistic success, The Marshall Project (named for civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall) has a flavorful business and development backstory.

Barsky launched by putting up $1 million for each of the site’s first two years, dipping into a fortune he had accumulated in two decades as a hedge fund operator. Other nonprofit digital startups such as ProPublica have taken on a general investigative mission, but Barsky deliberately chose to go much narrower.

“Prisons are the new Jim Crow,” he told me — far too many people, most of them Black, are locked up. Terrible conditions inside prisons and elsewhere in the criminal justice system beg for exposure and reform. Barsky is passionate about that cause.

But therein lay a dilemma. Barsky was a reporter in the years before he was a fund manager, but no longer defines himself that way. “Now I’m an advocate, not a journalist,” he said. So how to strike the right balance for Marshall?

On its website, the project describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. We have an impact on the system through journalism, rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.”

So journalism comes first. Still, it’s complicated, Barsky said, and he was careful in crafting a solution. “We have had two editors-in-chief, both of them from The New York Times. They could be counted on to uphold standards of journalism with conclusions based on facts. They’re truth seekers.”

Bill Keller, who had retired as executive editor of the Times, was the founding editor of The Marshall Project. That may have seemed an improbably ambitious hire for a small digital startup, Barsky said, but he was following the motto, “Don’t ask, don’t get.”

When Keller retired in 2019, he was succeeded by Chira, who had held numerous senior editing positions in a 40-year career at the Times and had a particularly strong reputation for developing early-career reporters and editors.

Barsky said that he admires the excellent work progressive publications like The Nation and Mother Jones have done on criminal justice, “but that’s not us.” He is vigilant about avoiding “opinion creep,” where ideology gets in front of the reporting.

“We do a lot of partnerships,” he said, including a collaboration with, The Indianapolis Star and The Advocate (of Louisiana) on the exposé of vicious police dog attacks that won the 2021 Pulitzer for national reporting. “If we were advocates,” Barsky said, “those news organizations would not want to partner with us.”

Barsky has rarely written for The Marshall Project, given that there’s not a lot of moderation in his views. However, he did publish a commentary in 2019 titled “How to fix our prisons? Let the public inside.” One reason prison reform has come so slowly, the piece argues, is that the public carries around broad misconceptions about the incarcerated, which could be dispelled by spending some time on the inside — “meet them (prisoners), humanize them.”

Barsky said that he was not advocating “tourism within walls,” though even that would raise awareness. Rather, he told me, he had in mind something more like “a retired teacher, teaching math.” His own experience in prisons, he told me, suggests that the incarcerated “have lost years of their life but have not given up hope.”

The commentary suggests that such involvements are little noticed but not all that uncommon now. San Quentin, which often plays the role of the Big House in popular culture, has many such programs and more than 3,000 active volunteers annually. But that level of intervention remains rare and unequally distributed.

Barsky, co-publishing the piece with The New York Times, proposed what he called a “Let Us In” program which could be pursued by a new administration or by President Donald Trump. (The Trump administration did embrace several policies that reduced the federal prison population).

In the end, neither the Trump nor Biden administrations picked up on his idea. The COVID-19 crisis intervened, sucking up bandwidth for other policy issues.

Barsky said he has seen progress over the seven years of The Marshall Project and the prospect of added attention and action in the years ahead. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone asked a question about criminal justice in one of the debates?” he said.

Neil Barsky (Courtesy: the Marshall Project)

He might revisit the ambitious proposal and mount a push to make it happen, Barsky said, but he has moved on, too. His next big undertaking turns back to reforming his old profession.

“You can’t believe the wealth pyramid — how many people are making huge money. And they are pretty much all male and all white,” Barsky said. But he also believes the finance industry is “on the precipice of change.” He plans to create an investment fund to rapidly increase the number of women and minority capital managers.

(Barsky is 63 and has always had eclectic interests. He squeezed in directing a documentary on former New York Mayor Ed Koch between his hedge fund work and launching Marshall.)

Once he landed Keller as editor, Barsky said, he had that part of the project nailed down. Barsky functioned at first as CEO/publisher but was looking from early on to identify and install a successor.

He found her in Carroll Bogert, a top executive at Human Rights Watch with a dozen years of experience as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Barsky told me that he was always confident that added funding would come, especially if he had the right person to run the place. Of Bogert, who became president in 2016, he said, “She’s a force — capable and journalism savvy.”

This fall, as he decided to step back, Barsky also had a replacement for himself as chair lined up — philanthropist Liz Simons, who runs a substantial family foundation.

The Marshall Project found its legs journalistically right from the start. Like ProPublica, it did stories on its own but also sought out local partners who would help in the reporting and publish a finished piece.

Early stories treated abuse of inmates by guards at Attica prison and abuses in the transport of prisoners by private companies. In only its second year of publishing, The Marshall Project with ProPublica did a deep dive on a botched rape investigation that won it its first Pulitzer.

For all of its impactful journalism and smooth development, Barsky is leaving with one regret. “Mea culpa,” he told me. In its first wave hiring capable reporters and editors fast, he said, diversity got only light attention. The unfortunate result was mostly white journalists writing mostly about Black Americans caught up in prison failures and other injustices.

“I don’t think we got off to a good start,” Barsky said, “but we have been mindful, and we are getting a lot better.” The project’s annual reporting now includes detailed numbers on staff diversity.

A satellite print publication, News Inside, circulates to 280 prisons. A separate video series seeks to reach the substantial share of the prison population that is functionally illiterate.

In addition to improving its racial balance, The Marshall Project now employs three previously incarcerated staffers. One of them is Keri Blakinger, a reporter whose dramatic personal story of drug abuse, two years of prison time and recovery will be told in a memoir scheduled to be published in June.

The next act for The Marshall Project will be to continue its momentum with added emphasis on local collaborations, editor Chira told me in an email:

Although we have always had a collaborative/partnership model, we have been increasingly looking for opportunities to collaborate with local partners. That’s true for many reasons: Criminal justice is overwhelmingly decided at the state and municipal level, so we can increase the impact of our work if local readers see it and when we can offer data, reporting and editing support to local news outlets often hamstrung by budget cuts.

In turn, we are grateful for the local sources and knowledge they bring to partnerships. A few examples: the series that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for National Reporting, Mauled. Challen Stephens of brought the idea to us, and we eventually ended up collaborating with IndyStar and the Advocate. More recently, as part of our series on life without parole, we collaborated with the Tampa Bay Times and their reporter Daniel Sullivan. The crisis in local news has prompted us to establish a news team in Cleveland as we search for ways to continue these collaborations and amplify accountability reporting in local areas.

As I reported in January, ProPublica has also focused most of its growth the last several years on its local journalism program.

I come away impressed with Barsky’s aspirations, systematic development of the venture and fervor. The latter was evident in this from his farewell letter to staff:

It is worth reminding ourselves that the American criminal justice system remains a national disgrace. In my opinion, our courts, jails, police forces and prisons (also housing, education, transportation systems and more) greatly favor rich over poor, and White over Black or brown. In other countries, this situation might be called a caste system or apartheid. It is easy to become numb to brutality, dehumanization and racism. Marshallers: May we never lose our sense of outrage.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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