Can topic-specific news sites work? The Marshall Project hopes so

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, surprised a number of long-time industry watchers when he joined a new-media startup called The Marshall Project earlier this year, especially since the site hadn’t even launched yet. It finally had its public debut this weekend — complete with a story in the New York Times — and joins a group of journalistic efforts that are focused on specific topics or what reporters like to call “beats.” Whether that kind of approach will be financially sustainable, however, remains an open question.

The site, which gets its name from former Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, is focused on the justice system in America — its flaws and failings, the need for reform, and so on. In an editor’s note, Keller describes it as a “non-profit and non-partisan news organization” that will collaborate with and links to existing news entities but also do its own investigative pieces on the topic.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”There is a pressing national need for high-quality journalism about the American criminal justice system. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Spiraling costs, inhumane prison conditions, controversial drug laws, and concerns about systemic racial bias have contributed to a growing bipartisan consensus that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.”[/blockquote]

The Marshall Project is the brainchild of founder Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned hedge-fund manager, who has put up about 20 percent of the initial funding for the site himself, and plans to raise the rest of its $10 million financing target from a variety of charitable foundations and groups. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Keller — who will act as editor-in-chief — jokingly described himself as “arm candy” for the founder.

Marshall Project

In many ways, the Project reminds me of sites like Syria Deeply and Ebola Deeply, two topic-specific sites from a new-media startup called News Deeply, run by former ABC News correspondent Lara Setrakian. Each site uses a similar template to report on and aggregate news and content around a complicated news topic — something that might not get as much investment from a traditional news organization. In his post about The Marshall Project, Keller mentions how media entities aren’t spending as much time and resources reporting on the criminal justice system.

Many years ago, when the web’s disruption of traditional media was still relatively new, I remember talking with NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen about his idea of “beat blogging,” which involved reporters focused on a specific topic — education, politics, etc. — using blogs and other social-media platforms to cover that issue in a variety of ways, including by getting feedback and interaction from knowledgeable readers or “the people formerly known as the audience.”

In a sense, that’s what sites like News Deeply and The Marshall Project are doing, but on a much larger scale: they are separating the topic from any kind of traditional media enterprise and creating a site and structure just for that — a subject-specific media entity.

The big question, of course, is whether this can work financially. The Marshall Project has started with a ProPublica-style approach that relies on donations (although Barsky said he is open to the idea of advertising), while News Deeply is based on a combination of non-profit funding and sponsorships from a variety of entities. Whether they ultimately succeed or not, it’s refreshing to see these and other efforts to dive deep on an important issue that may not be getting the kind of journalistic investment that it should. I wish them well.