The Marshall Project’s charmed launch

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Barsky and Keller. (Sasha Maslov)
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How do you get a $5 million-a-year journalism outfit funded by philanthropists up and running? Try starting with an op-ed.

In November, after Neil Barsky hatched plans to launch The Marshall Project, he found himself writing an opinion piece about Bill de Blasio for The New York Times’ Sunday Review section. It occurred to him that this could be a good opportunity to introduce the world to his latest endeavor, so he registered a URL and included the following sentence as his bio: “Neil Barsky is a former hedge fund manager who directed the documentary ‘Koch’ and is developing The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism enterprise that will cover the criminal justice system.”

That one little reference at the very bottom of the piece was enough to trigger an avalanche of interest, said Barksy: “That was its debut, and it went BAM! POW!” He said he got “tons” of outreach from criminal justice organizations and set up preliminary meetings with foundations interested in possibly funding the site.

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Step two? Hire a famous editor to run the thing.

Luring Bill Keller away from the Times was an audacious gesture that made big headlines in the media world, especially after the Times (are you sensing a pattern here?) wrote an article about the move that appeared on the front page of the paper’s business section on February 10. From there, “all hell broke loose,” said Barsky.

That night, Barsky was at a John Jay College of Criminal Justice gala honoring Piper Kerman, author of the unlikely prison-memoir that inspired the hit Netflix comedy-drama “Orange is the New Black.” The president of the school invited Barsky up to the podium to give some impromptu remarks about The Marshall Project in front of an audience consisting of roughly 200 potential funders, criminal justice advocates and journalists. Score!

“Part of it is simply that we’re doing something that connects with a lot of people,” Barsky told me when I asked about these early hints of success. “Part of it is we’ve gotten great publicity. Part of it is Bill’s a great ambassador. Part of it is my own connections.”

While The Marshall Project has announced several other high-profile hires, including digital managing editor Gabriel Dance (from The Guardian) and investigative managing editor Tim Golden (from the Times), Barsky and Keller haven’t revealed too many details about the site. But Keller said he’s talked with various publications and broadcasters about collaborative reporting projects, including NPR, PBS (“Frontline”), CBS (“48 Hours”) The Atlantic and Slate. It’s possible at least one such piece could be published prior to The Marshall Project’s anticipated fall launch: the site is collaborating with The Washington Post on something that “might produce a big story this summer,” said Keller.

This article appeared in the July issue of Capital magazine.