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.


Kevin P.

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?

NZ

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

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

Joe J

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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TedS

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.

NZ

"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

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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steve cebalt

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

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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