Bill Keller on His Criminal Justice Start-up the Marshall Project, Orange Is the New Black, and the Storm at the New York Times

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Photo: The Marshall Project

After 30 years at the New York Times, including the better part of a decade at the top of the masthead, Bill Keller decided it was time to start again from scratch. His new undertaking, forthcoming this fall, is a nonprofit journalism start-up focused on the American criminal justice system — seemingly a niche topic, but perhaps not in the most incarcerated nation on earth. The dream of reporter-cum-hedge fund manager (and Koch director) Neil Barsky, the Marshall Project, named for civil rights attorney and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, will run on about $5 million per year in philanthropy. Keller, then, is its public face, its pitchman, and the old-media center of its journalistic creditability. He’s also the editor-in-chief.

The newsroom veteran spoke to Intelligencer before the holiday weekend — ahead of lunch with a potential donor — about prepping for launch, the site’s grand plans (to affect the 2016 presidential election), his new digital brethren, and the big ship he left behind.

Walk me through a typical day since you left the New York Times.
I’m still not sure what a typical day is because it changes from week to week. At the moment, I have one reporter physically here. Next week, I have four more reporters arriving. A lot of time will be brainstorming with them about what our best reporting targets are over the next couple of months.

The money part of is mostly Neil’s business, and executive director Nicole Gordon, who comes out of the foundation world. They’ve been handling the grant proposals and most of the fund-raising from individuals. But people who are going to give you their money, or someone else’s money, want to meet the person who’s going to be running the operation. We’ve had one fund-raising cocktail event in New York, which I helped organize, and we have another one coming up in Los Angeles.

Is that role something that suits you?
I don’t mind it at all. It’s not like I’m selling a bill of goods. I’m trying to get people to support something I really believe in. I’ve said a couple of times, when I was editor of Times, fund-raising consisted of getting in the elevator, riding up to Arthur Sulzberger’s office, and trying to persuade him that we needed every penny we had — and maybe a couple million more.

Was your relationship with Mr. Sulzberger practice for this?
Yeah, I guess. Look, running the Times is a management job, and you are responsible for a budget, one many times larger than what we have at the Marshall Project. But they are similar in the respect that you need to justify what you’re doing. The money could go a lot quicker than it comes in if you’re not careful.

One big difference was at the Times I had a whole infrastructure around me — editors whose job was mainly to oversee the budget and the spending for a newsroom of 1,200 people. But I was the one who had to make the case to the publisher and the business side — at the time I was there, it was really as much a question of holding the line as it was making new investments. And sometimes we lost that argument just due to the economic realities of our business. But yeah, there certainly are similarities. The responsibilities go beyond purely journalistic.

Obviously the differences are huge, but what changes have taken the most adjustment for you, going from this behemoth fixture of American journalism to what is essentially a start-up?
The scale matters a lot. I tended to run a pretty flat newsroom, as the people in management school say. I liked to delegate responsibilities. But a newsroom of 20 or so people is flat management [by default] — some days it feels like everybody is in every meeting. There’s not a lot of hierarchy or structure, and there probably shouldn’t be.

Here we’re starting from scratch. We’re too small to have strictly defined beats and we have a journalistic target set that’s pretty vast. There are 20 or 30 different areas that are fruitful — those are subjects, not stories. At a start-up, just the basic question of who’s going to write which story is much more complicated than when you have the structure of beats and a report that’s driven mostly by the news.

What are those areas? The death penalty, marijuana legalization, and drug laws ... Are there other big umbrella issues you hope to really own?
Mental health is a big one — the way prisons and particularly jails have become dumping grounds for the mentally ill. Juvenile justice is a big one, including the sentencing of minors to life without parole. There’s a lot to be covered in the realm of money and politics — lobbying by companies with financial interest in incarceration. The whole question of prison downsizing. There’s a whole slew of stories to be written about parole and reentry. Felony disenfranchisement — 1 in 13 African-American can’t vote because of criminal records. There’s a lot of technology and science we want to write about — video, big data, eyewitness testimony. That’s just for starters.

And September is the launch date?
It’s our target. Mid-September is what I’ve been telling everybody. You have to have at least a notional deadline. If it slips a bit, it won’t be the end of the world.

You initially rejected comparisons, but what have you learned from watching other news start-ups launch — sites like Vox, 538, and First Look Media? Have you been keeping a list of what works and what doesn’t?
Yeah. Most of what we’re learning is about presentation and reach. We’re watching how they use social media to establish and then engage an audience. We’re watching how they use the tools aside from traditional words to tell stories. And we’re certainly finding things that we will copy. And they’re making some mistakes that we’re going to be careful to avoid.

Anything in particular?
Well, one thing that stuck out — I watched with great interest the launch of the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald’s venture. Because that is a very different undertaking but what it has in common is that it doesn’t have an established business model. At least in the outset, it’s going to be dependent on the confidence of backers with resources. In that case, one backer with resources. Glenn kind of launched with a bang and then disappeared for a while. You could see in the Twittersphere, and in the comments, that readers were sort of bewildered by that. The lesson I’m inclined to draw from that is that you should launch when you can sustain. Once you’ve whetted people’s appetite, you need to deliver.

As a reader, do you find yourself going to Vox or FiveThirtyEight?
Only when I make myself, really. I’ve watched FiveThirtyEight because I’m a big fan of Nate [Silver]. I started watching Vox because I’m a big fan of Ezra [Klein]. I really admire them both as innovators and journalists. I like the fact that they bring a seriousness of purpose to a realm that can sometimes get lost in silliness. But, this is just me, I don’t find either of them — it’s hard to predict what you’re going to get.

I have been going to FiveThirtyEight periodically during the World Cup, just because I think Nate is interesting on sports. I’ve kind of stopped checking Vox except once a week or so I remind myself, I should be watching Vox because there are a lot of smart people over there and we can learn something from them.

This isn’t just about places like Vox and FiveThirtyEight and the Upshot and Quartz and all the other online news-related entities. There’s this spectrum that runs from very narrow and niche-y to "you have no idea what to expect." And we don’t want to be so niche-y that the only people who read us are defense lawyers. And we won’t be. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so "you don’t know what to expect" that we don’t have a core audience. What will differentiate us from, say, ProPublica and FiveThirtyEight and Vox, is that we have a relatively coherent base audience.

Who are those people?
One of the things I wondered coming into this job is, “Is there such a thing as a criminal justice community?” It sounds nice, but does it exist? Do the people who labor in the business of juvenile justice and the people who do exonerations like the Innocence Project and the people who are trying to shrink the size of our overcrowded prisons and the people who worry about prosecutorial misconduct and the people who do research on how inmates reenter society, do those people actually talk to each other? My impression is actually they do. They don’t have a hub where they can all go and talk to each other and debate these issues — there are lot of little water coolers but no central place where they can come together, which we tend to create.

How big do you think your potential audience is?
I have no idea. I would be making numbers up out of whole cloth. We’ve been interviewing candidates for a social media/audience engagement editor and the first thing that person will do is establish a baseline estimate for reasonable expectations for traffic.

Keller at a NYT "Page One" meeting, 2008. Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik/Edit by Getty Images

You’ve said that to reach a large enough audience to matter, you need to use social media. That hasn’t always been your favorite thing – you’ve written negatively about Twitter’s “ephemeral nature.” Have you come around on that at all or do you see it as a necessary evil?
Not a necessary evil. My view of social media is that it’s a tool, not a religion. When I’ve written critically about the online life kind of displacing real life, it’s been mostly in the role of columnist trying to provoke. And pushing back against people who treat your online behavior as a test of your character [laughs]. It is a vitally important tool. People who are a lot smarter about it than I will be designing a strategy that uses every potential. Yes, I am not a prolific tweeter, but once we have stuff to share, I will lead by example and be much more present on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and any other platform that we think is really useful.

Do you miss the role of columnist provocateur that you had the past couple of years?
Look, being an op-ed columnist in the New York Times is one of the sweetest jobs in journalism. And beyond journalism. It was a great job. But I found two things about it — and this is not to say that I gave it up easily — but there were two things that I was finding a little bit frustrating.

One is that column-writing is a lonely business. It’s true that when you work for the Times everyone returns your phone call, so there was no problem finding interesting people to have conversations with. But it is basically a solo act. And the one thing that I missed about being in a newsroom is the pleasure of sitting around a table with six or eight really smart people who know their stuff and puzzling over a problem. I’ve got that back.

The other thing that was frustrating toward the end was that there are times when the political temper seems so high, and the sense of dysfunction and impasse seems so sclerotic, that you feel a little like you’re beating your head against the wall. I had sort of vowed at the end of last year, when I was still assuming that I was going to be writing a column this year, that I was going to stop writing about Washington and just write about cities and states. Because in cities and states, at least there are interesting things happening that have an outcome. Whereas Washington just seems to be this sludge pit.

In that sense, are you glad to not be participating in this most recent Iraq debate?
Yeah. In a word, yes [laughs].

One of the Marshall Project’s stated goals is to help make criminal justice reform an important part of the national debate by the 2016 presidential campaign. Is that doable?
There have been advocacy groups pushing for reform for decades that have not gotten a lot of traction. What’s different now, it seems to me, is that a cause that was predominantly the cause of the left or liberals or progressives — the sort of humanist wing of American politics — has begun to attract a following on the right. They don’t overlap entirely, but you have fiscal conservatives concerned about the cost and the waste — so you have Grover Norquist calling for prison reform — you have evangelical conservatives who are concerned about the affront to human dignity, and now you have the libertarian conservatives like Rand Paul, who see incarceration as another symptom of overbearing government.

They don’t all agree — there’s not a clear, coherent agenda on that side — but one of the things that’s held up reforms is the fear about Democratic politicians that if they get too out front, they’ll be walloped for being soft on crime. Getting conservatives into the mix, even if the areas of agreement are not one to one, creates a potential for things to actually change. So yes, I do think it’s entirely possible. In 2016, just as a presidential candidate who wants to be taken seriously will be expected to have a policy on taxation and on foreign intervention and education, they’ll be executed to have a policy on criminal justice reform.

I know Neil Barsky has also communicated with Piper Kerman, whose prison memoir became the show Orange Is the New Black. Have you watched the show? Is is giving criminal justice a moment in the popular imagination?
I watched the first season. I’ve been busy, so I’ve been a little more sporadic about the second season. But I will watch it. Just as character-driven drama, it’s great. And I’ve never been incarcerated so I’m not the one to comment on how accurate a representation is of life behind bars — Piper knows that a lot better than I do — but the fact that she and the show have managed to humanize such a diverse array of characters without sentimentalizing them as innocent makes for great drama. I’ve swapped emails with Piper and she’s interested in possibly writing something for our venture. I hope she will.

Another conversation surrounding these news start-ups is about diversity, which seems particularly important when you’re covering a realm with a systemic racial bias. Is that something you’ve considered in hiring?
The very first conversation I had with Neil Barsky, we agreed that it would require considerable effort to make sure that we had a staff that was diverse — as diverse as possible. But more important, that it isn’t just something for show, it makes sure that you understand the race component of this whole subject area. Forty percent of the incarcerated in America are African-Americans and another 20 percent are Hispanics. It’s not just a matter of having journalists who come from those worlds, it’s a matter of having resources — people who are on our advisory board, or sources — who understand the racial component and who we can use as sounding boards as we cover this stuff.

Hiring experienced journalists of color is difficult even if you’re the New York Times. I can testify from having spent quite a few years working to help diversify the Times. And when you’re a start-up — I would love to have Dean Baquet as my investigations editor. He’s not just one of the best African-American investigative journalists in America, he’s one of the best investigative journalists in America full stop. But you know, he’s kinda got a job that he’s not going to give up to come to a start-up.

What was it like watching that situation [Jill Abramson’s ugly firing and Baquet’s ascent to executive editor] after spending 30 years of your life at the Times?
Oh dear. I don’t know. Dean and Jill are both people I love and admire. I don’t think I want to get into kibitzing from the sidelines. It made me sad to see the place going through that kind of storm. It’s not great for morale — I know from having been through a few storms myself. But it is a big ship and it’s not going to be turned off course by a storm.

This interview has been condensed and edited.