Review: The Marshall Project

5 stars
Nonpartisan quality journalism focused on the US criminal justice system

In absolute numbers, no country holds more people in prison than the United States. The US also has the second highest incarceration rate – right after the Seychelles, an island archipelago with a population of 92,000 people. The racial disparity of the criminal justice system is well-documented. Combined with a constitution which permits forcing prisoners to work, and laws and practices which deprive felons of rights and opportunities even after release, America’s practice of mass incarceration has been linked to its history of slavery and racial segregation.

The issue is so severe that criminal justice reform has proponents across the political spectrum, but little progress has been made, even under the reform-friendly presidency of Barack Obama (the first sitting president to visit a federal prison).

One man who has made the cause his own is Neil Barsky, formerly the manager of a hedge fund named Alson Capital Partners, which managed $3.5B of capital at its peak. In 2014, Barsky launched The Marshall Project, named after Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice and a towering figure in US civil rights history. The name might suggest an advocacy organization, but The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture.

Barsky himself pursued a career in journalism before he went into finance, and he brought on board Bill Keller as editor-in-chief, further boosting the project’s journalistic credentials.

Keller was the executive editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2011. His long tenure there was not without its controversies. For example, he was a “reluctant hawk” arguing in favor of the Iraq war, something he later half-apologized for, only to argue in 2013 that the US should “get over Iraq”, arm more Syrian insurgents, and force Syria’s ruler Assad out of power.

Be that as it may, Keller/Barsky quickly turned The Marshall Project into a sizable journalistic venture and a professionally run nonprofit organization exclusively focused on the cause of criminal justice.

Stories are published through its own website, and sometimes in partnership with other media organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Together with ProPublica, the project won a Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. It’s a harrowing tale of how police pressured a woman to recant a report of a brutal rape, instead of tracking down her attacker, who would go on to commit five other attacks.

Funding, Transparency, Executive Compensation

The project is funded partially by Barsky himself, but it has also received funding from foundations and major donors, including some of the usual funders such as Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller. Its 2015 Annual Report provides a high-level breakdown of funding sources: 55% foundations, 43% individual donors. According to its latest financial statements, revenue for 2015 was about $4.8M.

The Annual Report also gives a sense of how the organization views its own impact, recapping its important stories of the year, and sometimes drawing a connection between investigations and real-world impact, for example:

After we published Attica’s Ghosts on brutality at New York’s infamous upstate prison, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, cameras were installed inside the stairwells, and the three guards finally pleaded guilty.

This impact assessment is not as systematic yet as the ones performed by some other organizations, but it is only the organization’s first Annual Report.

The latest available tax return reports that Keller received total compensation of $225K in 2014, though his annual compensation may be higher given that he still worked at the NYT in early March of that year. Regardless, it is well below some of excessive nonprofit compensation we’ve written about, e.g., the $584K Paul Steiger received in his first year at ProPublica.


The Marshall Project defines its mission as “creating and sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system”. I appreciated the clarity of the letter from the founder and the letter from the editor in setting out the organization’s agenda. Barsky writes in his letter, about the criminal justice system:

What struck me was not only how expensive, ineffective, and racially biased it is, and how difficult it is to find anyone, liberal or conservative, who defends the status quo. But also how our condition has become taken for granted.

He argues that the truth speaks for itself:

We do not need to be strident or ideological or selective in our use of facts. When the truth is as disturbing as it was in the segregated South, or in Vietnam, or today’s prisons and courts, truthful reporting can have a powerful impact. We will explore what is working as well as what is broken, and where the potential exists for meaningful reform.

He concludes:

Being nonpartisan is not the same as being neutral. We approach the issue with the view — shared by a growing number of conservatives and liberals — that our system needs serious rethinking.

For his part, Keller promises in his letter that “you will find here the voices of progressives and conservatives, centrists and provocateurs”.

Content Formats

Most of the content is long-form text, with a few interactives, and a limited amount of data journalism. As noted above, many stories are partnerships with other news organizations. This means they are also often published in traditional publications like The New York Times, or broadcast in other formats such as audio versions for NPR.

There is a small YouTube channel used to host videos that accompany some stories, and it does not have a large audience in its own right (548 subscribers as of this writing).

I find the focus on long-form journalism refreshing compared with other media that attempt to do a little bit of everything (podcasts, videos, etc.). That said, compared with sites like Vox, The Marshall Project still has some ways to go in making complex topics accessible, especially when it comes to data journalism.

Content Example: “Opening statement” Newsletter

On most pages, The Marshall Project encourages readers to subscribe to its newsletter, “Opening Statement”. It’s a roundup of criminal justice news that includes original reporting, but isn’t limited to it. I must say, it is very well curated. For example, the first item in today’s newsletter is this:

“My intuition tells me that if I go in, I’m not coming out.” Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant mother of three American children, is taking refuge in a church in Colorado rather than report as ordered for another meeting with federal immigration officials. She was ordered deported under the Obama administration after a conviction for using false ID, but was granted repeated postponements. She’s given her kids instructions about what to do if and when the feds come. THE NEW YORK TIMES Related: Feds defend arrest of first “dreamer;” say he’s a gang member. DHS More: Now ICE is detaining victims of domestic abuse, evidently on tips from their alleged abusers. EL PASO TIMES

Highlighting these particular news items, including in the email subject (“A mother claims sanctuary”), demonstrates excellent editorial judgment. These incidents help explain why many communities have chosen to protect undocumented individuals by declaring themselves “sanctuary cities”. At the same time, it is laudable to see a direct link to the DHS statement, even if it may undermine a strictly activist narrative.

While there is some room for improvement (headlines like “N/S/E/W” or “ETC.” are not especially helpful), the newsletter is definitely one that I’ll stay subscribed to. I especially appreciate that it does not give Marshall Project content special placement, but just attempts to highlight the most important stories of the day, wherever the may be found.

You can view past issues of the newsletter before subscribing.

Content Example: “The Deadly Consequences of Solitary With a Cellmate”

This story, which came out in March 2016, highlights the issue of prisons putting more than one inmate in cells designed for solitary confinement. According to the story, “at least 18 states double-up a portion of their restrictive housing, and over 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate.” A primary reason for this practice is prison overcrowding.

The story shows what anyone might expect: that sometimes, inmates attack or even kill each other under such circumstances. A chilling quote from the story:

After two months of begging for a single cell, Fox wrote a note to guards: “Move my cellie or I’m going to erase him.” They didn’t, so he did.

The Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but in a historically very punitive society, this is a high bar to meet in court. Reporting like The Marshall Project’s is essential to expose prison practices that amount to extrajudicial death sentences for inmates.

The story is well-written, uses neutral language, refers to many primary source documents, and makes good use of photographs, drawings, and an interactive 3D illustration. It was done in partnership with NPR.

Content Example: “Everything You Think You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong”

On the occasion of his book release, the project is giving exposure to John Pfaff’s work, which questions the common narrative that the “war on drugs” is the key driver of mass incarceration.

While I have no reason to question the integrity of Pfaff’s work, as presented here, it neglects the well-established link between drug criminalization and organized crime: drug money fuels other criminal activity and sustains criminal gangs and organizations. The story also does not touch on the effect drug-related felony convictions may have on people’s lives. In this way, the “war on drugs” can be empirically argued to have ripple effects far beyond its directly measurable effect on the prison population.

In fairness, the authors reached out to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) for a quote regarding Pfaff’s work, and she speaks to some of the drug war’s other ripple effects. Moreover, presenting provocative theses like Pfaff’s is certainly consistent with The Marshall Project’s mission, and it usefully expands our understanding of the big picture. Still, I would have preferred a less sensationalist headline and a more balanced approach.

Design, Tech and Licensing

The Marshall Project website is easy to navigate and mobile-friendly. It employs a tagging system it calls The Record to organize stories about subjects like immigration or prison life. One very neat feature of this taxonomy is that it’s used both for The Marshall Project’s own stories, and for stories from around the web.

There is no comment section or discussion forum, and content is under conventional copyright, though there is no copyright notice.

The site’s jargon, design and iconography are a bit idiosyncratic (i.e. you have to poke around a bit to figure out how the site is organized, rather than being able to apply a mental model from other sites). This reflects the use of a custom software developed for the project and recently published on GitHub under the MIT License with an explicit warning that “we cannot support any use of this code, in part or in whole.”

Beyond its content management system, The Marshall Project has a very active GitHub presence. Unlike the CMS, the project’s news monitoring tool, Klaxon, is designed for use by other journalists and has been forked by other organizations, e.g., by the Associated Press.

This is a big deal – if news organizations, thanks to leadership by nonprofits, can open up their technology layer, it will improve journalism for everyone.

The Verdict

The Marshall Project tackles a systemic issue that affects millions of lives in the United States – criminal justice – and it does so without deviating from the simple premise that shedding the light of quality journalism on the issue can lead to positive change.

Having only been around for a short time, the project has already demonstrated the value of this proposition. The collaboration with other media, and the use of open source tools, expand its impact beyond the website and newsletters. The team’s curatorial work in monitoring news from around the web is excellent.

The project’s nonpartisan outlook may predispose it slightly towards ideas and voices that appeal to centrists. Sex workers pushing for legalization, for example, may be frustrated to see only a single article on the subject: an interview with an advocate for strict application of the Nordic model (prosecuting johns but not prostitutes). This in spite of the fact that major organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch advocate for full decriminalization of “sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse” (Amnesty).

Systemic issues like sex work and drugs benefit from systematic explanations, e.g., backgrounders and data briefs. ProPublica ended up building an entire section for data journalism; Vox is well-known for its slightly clickbaity but useful “Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts” type articles. There may be opportunities for collaboration both with journalistic organizations and with think tanks and NGOs.

Still, these criticisms are not serious enough to subtract points from the final rating: 5 out of 5 stars. The Marshall Project is already very good at what it does, and I highly recommend following their work. You can follow them on Twitter, on Facebook, and via the Twitter list of all media rated 4 stars or higher.