Bill Keller’s big bet

“What a coup for this new venture to get someone of his caliber.” That’s Jill Abramson’s apt description of the move by her predecessor as the top editor of the nation’s most important newspaper to the top editorial post of The Marshall Project.

I’ve eagerly kept my nose pressed to the glass to watch as this criminal-justice-journalism startup comes into focus. Now that New York Times columnist Bill Keller has announced he will join the nonprofit in March, it’s clearer still that Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky has grand ambitions for a site that he describes as “an agenda-setting resource for up-to-the-minute news, in-depth reporting and commentary about criminal justice” — or, more colorfully in today’s Keller story, as a journalistic wakeup call to a “bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated” system that needs fundamental change.

Beyond Keller’s star power and clear abilities at managing a major news organization, the move strikes me as intriguing because Keller isn’t particularly known for his devotion to the cause of covering criminal justice. The Times certainly maintained its commitment to covering legal affairs under Keller, but it’s actually Abramson who, before her work at the Times and Wall Street Journal, tilled these fields at The American Lawyer and Legal Times and who presided over one of the more obvious examples of the kind of work Barsky et al. probably envision, John Tierney’s Time and Punishment series in Science Times. So what Keller’s hiring really signals is The Marshall Project’s ability to grab attention, set sights on a big general audience, and spend real money. To that point, the project’s announcement includes this reveal: “The Marshall Project will have an annual operating budget of $4-$5 million, and a full-time staff of 20-25 journalists.” That’s not off the charts huge, but it’s real enough to make the site’s announcements quite credible.

Keller compares his move to that of Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger to ProPublica. In the the six years since, ProPublica has proven itself a major and respected force in producing original, reported journalism on government. Can a site with similar aspirations thrive when focused only on criminal justice? That’s Keller’s and Barsky’s bet. This is as good a way as any to grab a broader public’s attention (beyond nerdy enclaves like this blog) to ensure that we’ll all be watching.

2 thoughts on “Bill Keller’s big bet”

  1. I suspect the hire is mostly about raising money from foundations whose program officers will be impressed with Keller’s record of management and his name recognition, and who, despite doling out millions to journalistic entities, often know squat about journalism itself.

  2. Can’t argue with that, but a side benefit is that more readers are bound to become aware of the site and its work — thus, about criminal justice reform — because of his involvement.

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