Ferguson, the drug war, death row: there is no shortage of controversial issues related to the American criminal justice system. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization helmed by former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, aims to be a rich source of criminal justice coverage–a place for readers to realize just how connected these issues actually are. “Our aim is to move public opinion, not towards a particular agenda, but towards a state of urgency,” says Keller.
The Marshall Project launched this weekend with a series of features and smaller pieces, including a Q&A with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, an interactive infographic looking at the statistics of criminal justice, and a piece–also published on the Washington Post–examining delays on death row. The site will also put out a newsletter curated by Andrew Cohen, the site’s commentary and analysis editor.
The rise of mass incarceration is one of the broader topics that the Marshall Project will cover. “A lot of coverage hinges on that phenomenon. You start looking at how people get into the system, at things like juvenile justice, the criminalization of mental illness, the drug war,” says Keller. “Then you look at the 95% of people in prison who get out. … What happens when people who are locked up for years, who are possibly brutalized, get back into the community? What does that mean for public safety?”
There are two different audiences for the Marshall Project’s coverage: People who are in some way involved in the criminal justice system–lawyers, judges, cops, advocates, etc.–and the general public. With 2.4 million people locked up in the U.S. today, much of the general population has a connection to the system as well.
People looking for immediate on-the-ground reporting after a major event, however, should turn to other news sites. The Marshall Project is taking a different approach. “We just came out of a meeting where we’re discussing how we’re going to react to the grand jury reaction to the Ferguson shooting. We are not going to join all the networks and newspapers who are going to send correspondents to Ferguson to tell you about the public reaction,” says Keller. “Maybe we can nudge the curve. That’s the advantage to having a newsroom that’s immersed in the subject. People can see past the first day story, the second day story.”
Like many other new media projects that have launched over the past year or so, The Marshall Project has a nimble website. Gabriel Dance, the site’s managing editor, was formerly the interactive editor at the Guardian, where he worked on the mammoth NSA: Decoded interactive multimedia project. At The Marshall Project, he’s leading a team that’s working with a custom-built content management system–one that has what he calls a “seamless integration of interactive and graphics.”
“The website is going to look beautiful and engaging but it will have six to 10 pieces of content on it [to start]. All of which is to say that the website is going to adapt, evolve, and change,” he says. “It’s like we just finished building this really fantastic sexy luxury race car. We’re going to put out these first few stories, but we haven’t started to drive the car yet.”