The Non-Profit Journalism Keeps Coming

As the economics of high-end journalism continue to worsen, it is interesting — and, if you’re a fan of journalism, encouraging — to see how much non-profit journalism is being created. NPR is of course the most famous model but there’s also ProPublica, Pierre Omidyar‘s First Look Media, and a lot of other foundation- and philanthropist-funded projects.

Add to this list The Marshall Project, a “not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering America’s criminal justice system.” It’s being launched by Neil Barsky, a former journalist, hedge-funder, and most recently film director. (He’s also a friend of mine, but don’t hold that against him.)

Here’s the rest of the Marshall Project’s mission statement:

The Marshall Project is founded on two simple ideas:

1) There is a pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. From spiraling costs, to controversial drug laws, to prison violence, to concerns about systemic racial bias, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that America’s criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. As traditional media companies cut back on enterprise reporting, the Marshall Project will serve as a dynamic digital hub for information and debate on the legal and corrections systems.

2) With growing awareness of the system’s failings, now is an opportune moment to launch a national conversation about criminal justice. There are numerous indications of the country’s appetite for reform. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently proposed sweeping changes to mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. In New York State, the Rockefeller drug laws were amended to give judges more discretion over sentencing. Marijuana is now decriminalized or legal in 15 states. And for the first time in decades, the national prison population is beginning to decline.

We believe honest storytelling is a powerful agent of social change. The Marshall Project will be an agenda-setting resource for up-to-the-minute news, in-depth reporting and commentary about criminal justice. Our goal is to help make criminal justice reform an important part of the national debate by the 2016 presidential campaign. Just as a “national conversation” dramatically altered the country’s views on gay marriage and education reform, so too can a national conversation help us confront our troubled courts and prisons.

The Marshall Project will combine the best of the old and the new in journalism. We will achieve our goals through the use of conventional investigative reporting and opinion writing, and embrace new technologies currently transforming the media, including interactive graphics, immersive digital stories, short video documentaries and content generated by our readers. We will curate the daily torrent of criminal justice news from publications around the country, highlight the work of advocacy groups on both the right and left, host debates, and drive a lively discussion on social media.

The Marshall Project will be funded with the support of foundations and donors. For more information, contact us at info@themarshalloproject.org.

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  1. Kevin P. says:

    I took a look at First Look Media, but it looks like all their hires are firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. So they will be hard to distinguish from the rest of the media.

    Perhaps Omidyar should rename his outfit the First Left Media?

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  2. NZ says:

    When you say “high-end journalism,” I assume that means “geared towards an audience of above-average intelligence and education/comprehension skills.”

    I am pleased to see journalists abandoning the false pretense of objectivity, as the Marshall Project clearly does in their mission statement. For too long journalism has enjoyed a reputation as some kind of benevolent public service. (Journalism is a lot more objective now than it used to be, but it is still nowhere near true objectivity–and never can be, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who thinks.)

    But if the Marshall Project is “high-end journalism,” why do they insult their audience’s intelligence by calling themselves “non-partisan” and then launching into a clearly partisan wishlist of reforms? Why not just call themselves partisan? Why set the stage by being dishonest right off the bat? Honesty, unlike objectivity, is at least possible. It’d be nice to see some journalists striving for that instead.

    This is that old journalistic habit at work: to feign lack of bias where no lack exists. Journalism, of course, is no less biased than anything else; its only distinction is its affectation, which is intended to signal lack of bias. Thus the strange way that news articles are worded, or the strange melody that TV newscasters put into their voice while reporting.

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    • bakca says:

      Justice is a left-wing value? I don’t concede that to be true.

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      • Joe J says:

        It all depends what the term means this week. justice or more likely “Social Justice” aka redistributing wealth, punishing the “oppressors”. One of the tools of the left are redefining terms so they don’t have any bearing on what they originally meant.

        Since they bring up the subject of law, courts and prisons, they state systemic racial bias. True there appears to be a racial bias, (African Americans are about 4 x more in jail than demographics would suggest and seem to receive about a 30% penalty to their sentences) however, anyone with an non extreme left look at the system would see an even greater anti-male bias. 3% of incarcerated are female. Making men 20 x more in jail. with a 400% sentencing penalty.
        However since an anti-male bias doesn’t fit the lefts agendas, it gets ignored.
        The truth is you are much better off in front of a judge being a black woman than a white male.

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      • NZ says:

        @bakca:

        Did you mean to respond to Kevin P.? I never said justice was a left-wing value, nor even used the phrase “left-wing”.

        It is true that activist groups using phrases like “have a conversation about” and “criminal justice system” in the same sentence in their mission statements are probably more likely to be left-wing. I make no judgment about the general politics of the Marshall Project, but if in the final analysis they were shown to be left-wing, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

        But still, there are plenty of conservatives who also want to reform our justice system. It’s just that these conservatives are a lot less monolithic: some want to make prisons smaller; some want harsher sentencing; some want prisons divided by weight class, for the safety of the prisoners and the guards; some want greater and more expedient use of the death penalty; some want to do away with the death penalty (on similar grounds to those on which they oppose abortion); some want to legalize drugs and pardon non-violent drug offenders.

        (The war on drugs, remember, was a project created and maintained–and still championed in large part–by Progressives.)

        Also keep in mind it is those on the left, not the right, who are closer to supporting notions like putting so-called “racists,” “homophobes,” and other thought-criminals in jail, or at least slapping them with fines and blacklisting. The penitentiaries of Nixon and Reagan pale in comparison with the gulags of Stalin and Chernenko, both alpha practitioners of left-wing theory.

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  3. TedS says:

    I happen to agree with the Marshall Project on the prison/criminal justice system reform issues, but it seems like they’re activist journalists. That certainly has it’s place (and is likely part of the reason they’re willing to publish news without profiting), but there will always be a need for professional, objective journalists.

    Traditional ‘objective’ journalism doesn’t always live up to the promise implied by the term, but the simple fact that they want to be objective makes a huge difference and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The idea that, because other news organizations displayed SOME bias that we should embrace our biases is an enormous harm done to public discourse by Fox News. If we replace our current (and endangered) professional newspapers and other mainstream news organizations with activists – even ones we agree with – this will only become worse.

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    • NZ says:

      “there will always be a need for professional, objective journalists.”

      Like whom, exactly? I can’t think of any. I don’t mean that as a complaint, either. It’s simply not feasible or even possible to be objective. Even if no facts get distorted, some facts and viewpoints must be omitted. There will always be people who therefore find a piece of journalism wildly biased or colored by ignorance. In most cases this is a very large group of people. And of course journalists, tending to be clever writer types, are experts at using certain phrases, word combinations, etc., to insinuate statements where none need be literally spelled out. TV journalists do the same thing, with that strange vocal melody added to their toolkit.

      My prescription is not to eliminate journalism, but to treat it as an industrial product. Journalists should be more like research professors or expert practitioners, and the content they generate should be geared towards expert pundits, who absorb and critique the journalism.

      This is where the industrial product gets turned into a consumer product. The pundits will have biases but will be open about them, and will use their expertise to argue to their audiences why their bias is correct and why opposing biases are incorrect.

      Audiences, meanwhile, will continue to do what they’ve always done: seek out news that confirms their preconceptions. This time, however, they’ll be getting the news from people who know what they’re talking about and who don’t lie about the fact that they’re trying to sell a particular viewpoint.

      Reporting on intelligence is a fine case in point. At a recent meeting of leading psychometricians, it was concluded that the mainstream media is generally lousy at reporting on this field. (I imagine economists feel the same way!) So who DOES report well on intelligence? The top two sources named in a survey of psychometricians were bloggers. (Source: Coyle and Becker’s survey of intelligence experts presented at ISIR conference. Google it.)

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      • TedS says:

        If you look at the best news sources out there now in terms of amount of content and lack of bias, it’s mostly mainstream print newspapers (e.g., NY Times). The traditional solution to bias was for newspapers to have standard reporting that covered facts and an editorial page that offered their opinion or the opinions of others. That made it fairly clear what their biases were, but built a deliberate wall between facts and opinions. It was (and is) imperfect, but overall it does a pretty good job of delivering facts and context. Journalists being open and unrestrained with their biases and consumers selecting the biases they prefer exaggerates those biases. You start to have liberal facts and conservative facts, which often don’t overlap (and of course many of them are not facts at all).

        I agree with you about the utility of expert bloggers and pundits, but I think there’s a good reason for the traditional approach to objective journalism. If you look at the actual effects of consumer oriented journalism, it has been to water down facts with opinions and, frankly, outright lies. Much of politics is a sort of tribalism in which there’s no incentive to call people on your side on their lies. If you don’t at least try to appeal to both sides, lies and distortions increasingly find their way in.

        I agree that reporting on intelligence is abysmal. I’m a PhD psychologist, so I know the research literature on intelligence pretty well. The problem there is that most Americans, journalists and non-journalists alike, have a tough time separating what they WANT to be true from what IS true. In many areas, like physics or neuroscience, they can accept that their opinions and wishes don’t really have any bearing on what’s true. In psychology, though, they simply don’t see things that way. This leads to a tendency to ignore and misrepresent science on issues like intelligence. Sadly, the mainstream opinions of Americans don’t overlap much with the mainstream science of intelligence.

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      • NZ says:

        “If you look at the best news sources out there now in terms of amount of content and lack of bias, it’s mostly mainstream print newspapers (e.g., NY Times).”

        NY Times? Surely you jest!

        Exactly what kind of “solution” was this “separation of facts and opinions,” when it never eliminated bias in the first place?

        How can bias be eliminated when journalism (even so-called “standard reporting”) must by necessity report from a certain perspective (one the readers can relate to and/or are interested in, or from the perspective of writerly journalist types) and omit certain (most) facts and opinions for the sake of readability, space, and editorial prudence?

        Why keep causally using non-sequiturs like “objective journalism”?

        Being open about one’s bias is not the same thing as, and does not necessitate, being unrestrained in it. If anything, being open would cause one to exercise more restraint. Suddenly, the journalist realizes he is more likely to have his facts checked by somebody alerted to this viewpoint, rather than have his words accepted prima facie.

        Journalism does not try to appeal to both sides. Rather, it takes on the affectation of having done so.

        What’s interesting about the opinions of mainstream Americans on intelligence is that their common sense (what they know from observation but would never actually say for fear of social penalty, or may just never have thought to articulate) is probably closer to the scientific consensus than the journalism is.

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      • TedS says:

        Some organizations convey news for the purpose of convincing others of a single point or set of related points and/or mobilizing them to support a cause. That’s activist journalism. To them, news is primarily a tool to be used rather than an end in itself. Other news sources attempt to convey factual information about events without any particular motive or point behind that information. Sometimes bias shades the way information is conveyed, but it isn’t intentional and doesn’t flow from a single, consistent purpose. That’s objective journalism. You may dislike the term because it promises something it can’t completely deliver, but if you can see a difference between, for example, the Washington Post and the Greenpeace website, then we need a term to label each type of journalism. There are qualitative differences between the two types of journalism in terms of their goals and intentions, even if the difference is only a difference of degree (I would say a large difference) when it comes to bias.

        Activist news organizations aren’t necessarily bad, but people first need to know a set of common facts before exposing themselves to opinions or a slanted portrayal of those facts. You can say that being open and deliberate about your bias makes it less of a problem in theory, but it doesn’t work out that way in practice. Research shows that people are uncritical about sources of information and lines of reasoning that support their beliefs. If everyone gets their news from sources selected because they match that person’s existing beliefs (and deliberately tailored to do so), then readers can’t be expected to critically evaluate the organization delivering that news.

        Take the specific case of Fox News. Fox News has blurred the line between activist journalism and objective journalism. Polling found that Fox News viewers are less informed on questions of fact than viewers/readers of any other news sources. Admittedly, I think television news in general does a poor job of conveying information, but Fox News viewers being uninformed is related to the fact that news is largely being used to serve a deliberate purpose (mobilizing viewers to support political conservatism). If you think I’m being one-sided, a similar point could be made regarding MSNBC.

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      • NZ says:

        @TedS:

        “Activist journalism” and “objective journalism” are both non-sequiturs: the former isn’t really journalism, the latter isn’t really objective. I see no reason to casually use either phrase.

        A set of common facts is rarely achieved, and barely useful even then. Thinking of “common facts” as the center portion of a Venn diagram, the non-intersecting outer circles of facts (facts one side accepts and the other side does not) may be huge–and, objectively speaking, one side may be more absolutely wrong about their facts than the other.

        Besides, one man’s facts may be another man’s hate speech. Psychologists studying intelligence know this well, as do journalists who studiously avoid including certain facts, and even more studiously avoid noticing patterns about certain facts.

        Average readers–with their, what, 3rd grade reading level?–don’t critically evaluate the information they get from journalists OR pundits. The difference is that journalists take advantage of this with the affectation I wrote about before. Pundits at least are expected to know what they are talking about.

        I don’t fault you for being one-sided about Fox News, though I disagree that Fox News supports anything I’d call an actual “conservative” viewpoint.

        FWIW, I once took a survey on the NYT website. It had 13 questions about current events, and at the beginning it asks where you get your news. The average NYT reader scored something like a 3 or 4. The ONLY place I get my news is from blogs (yes, occasionally they will quote stories from the NYT, but only the context of discussing them). I scored 11.

        So, I’d be curious about a more scientific study asking the same basic question: are people who get their news from mainstream newsmedia more or less informed than people who get their news exclusively filtered through biased pundits? And what about people who get some mix of the two? It’d be great if the study looked at people’s knowledge of current events as well as their knowledge of current professional consensuses and disagreements in various fields.

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    • NZ says:

      PS. Reread your initial and wanted to respond specifically to something I skipped earlier:

      “the simple fact that they [journalists] want to be objective makes a huge difference and shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

      Who doesn’t want to be objective? If I hold an opinion on something, isn’t it because I feel I am objectively right about it? This even applies to matters of taste: I may acknowledge that others prefer vanilla, but deep down I know I’m right about chocolate being better. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a preference for chocolate!

      You’re confusing “wanting to be objective” with the affectations of objectivity. Journalism is to writing what shakycam is to filmmaking: it’s a style, a pose, intended to signal lack of bias. Nothing more. Peel that away and journalism is just blogging, except it’s done by people without any expert knowledge in whatever they’re writing about.

      The journalist’s only peculiar skill is his willingness to go out and record the words of strangers. That skill could be put to better use if journalism was just a way to collect information which was then fed to expert pundits.

      Instead, journalists are also given the power to select the sources of, edit, and interpret that information, which they then put into their own words. These words are tailored for a general audience unlikely to pick up on the hidden messages inserted by the journalists’ own biases and the biases of their superiors. Worse yet, that audience has been conditioned to accept these words as unbiased (or, in your case, attempting to be unbiased) simply because they are coming from journalists. Very dangerous.

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      • TedS says:

        The difference is that traditional journalists engage in self-censorship. They believe certain things, but deliberately leave those things out of their stories because they don’t think that’s the proper place for them. You clearly don’t trust them to do this, but both of my parents are print journalists (now retired) so I can say firsthand that they take it seriously.

        Also, it doesn’t seem to be true that people instinctively trust journalists. Polls that measure people’s trust of different occupations tend to put journalists quite low.

        I agree that journalists work should be critically examined by experts. Having done research that is reported on (and sometimes misreported on), I understand frustration with journalistic biases. Nobody else is gathering any significant amount of the information on the ground you refer to, though, so there’s not really an alternative. I read several blogs (including this one), but I see them as a supplement and correction to traditional journalism, not a replacement.

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      • NZ says:

        “The difference is that traditional journalists engage in self-censorship. They believe certain things, but deliberately leave those things out of their stories because they don’t think that’s the proper place for them.”

        I don’t see how that’s true of traditional journalists but not of modern journalists. Both earnestly attempt to self-censor to achieve objectivity, and both predictably fail miserably.

        It’s not that I don’t trust journalists to try to keep their reporting free of bias, it’s that I plainly observe them failing to keep their reporting bias-free. And as I’ve already said a few times, I don’t expect unbiased reporting, because I know it is impossible on many levels.

        I wonder where “pollsters” came on that measure of people’s trust of different occupations. Judging by the way people treat journalism–calling it “the fourth estate” and so on–I’d say the pose of objectivity that journalists strike (which is in fact the essence of journalism and the only thing that differentiates it from other forms of writing) works pretty well for them.

        “Nobody else is gathering any significant amount of the information on the ground you refer to, though, so there’s not really an alternative”

        I don’t think either part of that is true. Lots of people get their news primarily from expert bloggers/pundits. “The alternative’s” infrastructure already exists. The only thing missing is a widespread change in attitude–both among the public and among journalists themselves–about the role of journalism.

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    • J1 says:

      Is there a Godwin’s Law variant for criticism of Fox News and/or its viewers? There should be.

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  4. steve cebalt says:

    NZ makes a great many good points.

    My thought: This blog is a great model of nonprofit news on economics. The blog posts lay the foundation for open and excellent discussions from readers who represent many backgrounds. Most arguments are supported by fact or links or clearly represent the open biases of commenters, and others weigh in to correct, contradict, or amplify. You (Freakonomics) may be subsidized by the radio station (I really have no idea); or perhaps the blog promotes your for-profit brand. And you solicit reader free-will donations. All good; really good. The blog really works, and I hope the business model, whatever it is (again, I really don’t know) is sustainable for all interested parties.

    (Incidentally, I quickly scanned this site for a donate button or “how we are funded” and didn’t see anything. Maybe I missed it. For a while, your solicitations would pop up, but your fundraiser may have ended? I just wanted to see if your business model was stated here and I didn’t see it; not that it’s any of my business — just that it is relevant to my comment.)

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    • NZ says:

      Thanks, steve cebalt.

      I agree this blog is a great model of nonprofit (?) writing on economics, though I would say its focus is mostly relegated to case studies of behavioral economics–not to news on economics in general.

      Readers who get their info about stuff like unintended consequences and the psychology of altruism primarily from Freakonomics are almost certainly much more knowledgeable and informed about those topics than people who get their info about those same things primarily from mainstream news sources.

      Also, what’s neat about the Freakonomics example is that it’s geared towards a fairly general audience. The reading level isn’t as abysmal as, say, USA Today, but an average junior high student could probably read Freakonomics and comprehend/appreciate most of it. (Aren’t there even a few posts showcasing the youth of some of the readers?)

      This suggests that the model (expert bloggers acting as intermediaries between journalists and the general public) could be greatly expanded, as I advocate.

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