News and analysis
November 17, 2014

Nonprofit News Site Focusing on Criminal Justice Draws Big Grant Makers’ Support

The Ford and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations are among the founding donors supporting the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism website focusing on criminal justice that makes its debut Monday. Its goal is to make that issue a subject of national debate during the 2016 presidential-election campaign.

Named after the former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the site will be led by its founder and chairman, Neil Barsky, a former hedge-fund manager and one-time Wall Street Journal reporter, and Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times. The site features in-depth investigations on subjects including juvenile justice, parole, prisoner re-entry, and inmates’ mental health. Other content will include interviews with experts on criminal justice, debates, and reporting from inside prisons.

Given the tripling of the incarceration rate in America since 1980, Mr. Keller and Mr. Barsky say that now is the right time for journalists to focus on the American justice system—something that can’t be done with a financial bottom line in mind. Politicians on the left and right are taking up the cause, and the news and entertainment media have begun spotlighting problems in the national justice system, Mr. Keller notes.

"Some events that have come along—Ferguson, the beatings of prisoners at Riker’s Island—have drawn people to the issue," Mr. Keller says. "People are more receptive to examining this now."

The site launches on the heels of last week’s announcement by the American Civil Liberties Union that it had received $50-million from Open Society Foundations to support its efforts to overhaul the criminal-justice system.

Raising Money

The Marshall Project is the latest entry in the emerging field of nonprofit journalism, following the lead of the Center for Investigative Reporting, First Look Media, Kaiser Health News, and ProPublica in recent years.

"Criminal justice is not a commercial topic," says Mr. Barsky, explaining the organization’s decision to seek help from individuals and foundations. He has donated 20 percent of the nearly $6-million the site has raised so far; the goal is to raise $10-million to cover the organization’s budget for the first two years.

"There’s no for-profit entity that will do what we need it to do," Mr. Barsky adds. "There’s a growing understanding within philanthropy that the traditional journalism business model is broken. We’re been encouraged by what appears to be widespread support in the philanthropic world for nonprofit accountability journalism and for organizations that address the criminal-justice issue."

Mr. Barsky and Mr. Keller have met with 40 grant makers and individuals to make their pitch for support. So far, Mr. Barsky has tapped several of his Wall Street connections for donations. Among the early contributors: foundations formed by the former hedge-fund trader John Arnold; investors Timothy Barakett and Leon Cooperman and their wives; Jeffrey Halis, a hedge-fund manager; and William McComb, a financial analyst.

Mr. Barsky has also gotten the ear of large grant makers. During summer conference calls set up with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts, he laid out the organization’s plans to several major foundations, with some success.

"Their idea that mass incarceration is the civil-rights issue of our time was like music to our ears," says Patrick Griffin, a justice-reform program officer at MacArthur, which made a grant to the organization of $750,000 over two years.

Adds Lauren Pabst, a program officer for journalism at the foundation: "There is a need for nonprofit reporting on justice issues that ties problems at local jails to nationwide issues. We’re hoping that the Marshall Project can connect those dots and present the bigger picture."

The organization’s staff, which features several Pulitzer Prize winners, impressed MacArthur as well, Ms. Pabst adds.

But Mr. Barsky has faced his share of rejection too. "There’s a huge movement in philanthropy to show results, but what we do is harder to measure," he says. "What we do is more conceptual. It may not be as quantifiable as what other nonprofits do, but it doesn’t mean we won’t have impact. One of our challenges is to show funders where we’ve had an impact."

While trying to win over donors and grant makers, the organization will also seek to develop other sources of revenue. Forming partnerships with for-profit news-media companies—its first two investigative stories have already been published in Slate and The Washington Post—will be considered, as will selling advertising space on the site.