In 2004, Texas man Todd Willingham was executed for starting the fire that had killed his three daughters thirteen years earlier. The case rested on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Willingham confessed the crime to him.
But now, the informant says he lied.
When a 5,000-word investigation called “The Prosecutor and the Snitch,” was published about the case in early August, the world heard a harrowing tale about the United States criminal justice. It also got a taste of what’s to come from the innovative new journalism startup that published it.
The Marshall Project, whose name is an “homage to Supreme Court justice and crusading civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall,” is a new nonprofit journalism outlet focused solely on covering the U.S. criminal justice system. It plans to cover topics including sentencing reform, prosecutorial misconduct and the war on drugs.
But perhaps most notable is the way the stories will be told: “interactive graphics, maps, charts, words, all on the same page, and all in a way that the reader is not taken out of the story, regardless of what format they're consuming it in,” the project’s managing editor for digital, Gabriel Dance, former interactive editor for the Guardian, told journalism.co.uk.
The Marshall Project promises to “combine the best of the old and the new in journalism," according to its website.
The project was announced late last year by Neil Barsky, a former journalist turned hedge fund manager. In addition to Dance, the project’s editorial team is led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who will be editor in chief, and Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times journalist Tim Golden, who will be managing editor for investigations and news. The project plans to launch in October.
At the core of the Marshall Project’s news style is “finding different ways to tell stories,” Keller told journalism.co.uk. "Good journalistic writing, combined with what you can do online and with social media to tell the story visually, means we can reach an audience that the drier academic research may not reach.”
Though the Project will still have a primary writer working on each investigation, “interactive reporters” will also work on stories, according to Dance.
The outlet will offer both short- and long-term investigations distributed on the web, as well as through newsrooms and other partnerships, Keller told Nieman Journalism Lab earlier this year. The Willingham story, for example, was published on The Marshall Project’s website as well as on the Washington Post's.
That story, which was mainly a text piece, broke the Project’s interactive storytelling model, as the decision to run the story came as a pressure group sought to file a complaint against the prosecutor involved in the case. “Finding points of a story that can be best told in a manner other than text,” Dance told journalism.co.uk, “is an approach that would have been taken with the Willingham story."
In addition to publishing its own investigations, the project “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,” according to the site.
The ultimate goal, it says, is to drive a national conversation that can “help us confront our troubled courts and prisons.”
The nonprofit’s annual operating budget will between US$4 million and US$5 million, with the funding coming from Barsky, philanthropies, and a number of donors, according to Nieman Lab.
The Marshall Project is being heralded as another sign that nonprofit journalism is here to stay. “Whereas there used to be just a few species, now a plethora of new mutations is leaping off the page, using cheap technology to launch start-ups in different niches,” wrote Gillian Tett in the Financial Times Magazine.
These nonprofits “tap a desire by some rich people to support civic initiatives – and produce deep investigative journalism in areas that the mainstream media often ignore, because it is unfashionable or just not commercially viable,” she wrote.
Barsky told Nieman Lab that he believes nonprofit journalism has the potential to be more sustainable over time than for-profit journalism.
“A nonprofit organization has to sustain itself by being excellent and having an impact. So does for-profit, frankly,” he said. “But the difference is there are people of goodwill out there who are willing to support us if we do great work.”
Jessica Weiss is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá.
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via 710928003.