‘Koch’ director tackles US criminal justice system

‘Koch’ director tackles US criminal justice system

Neil Barsky enlists NYT’s Bill Keller to help him launch the Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Neil Barsky (Photo credit: Julie Cunnah)
Neil Barsky (Photo credit: Julie Cunnah)

Shortly after Neil Barsky returned home to New York from the screening of his acclaimed documentary film, “Koch,” at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, he decided to do something about the American criminal justice system.

A couple of months ago, Barsky announced the launch of the Marshall Project, a not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering the American criminal justice system. Then, on Monday, he let it be known that he had lured New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller away from the Times to be the Marshall Project’s editor-in-chief. Keller will assume his new role on March 1, and the project is expected to be up and running by the end of the first quarter of this year.

Barsky, who will be the Marshall Projects’ publisher, has worked as a filmmaker and a hedge fund manager. However, it was to his original profession that he returned this time.

“My DNA is journalism. I spent my first 12 working years as a journalist,” he told The Times of Israel, referring to his past work for the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. He currently serves as the chairman of the board of overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Barsky did not cover the criminal justice system when he was a reporter, but he feels it is critical that it be covered now. “It is such a persistent scandal,” he said of the system. “There is reform going on, but it is so hard to change the whole system. I believe that journalism is the most honest means of effecting social change.”

He sees the shift on gay marriage in the United States in recent years as a clear example of how something can change if it becomes part of the national conversation. “I think we can do this for criminal justice system reform if we become a hub for the issue,” Barsky said. “The idea is to attract all people interested in this issue, regardless of their political views.”

Barsky is looking for donors — foundations and wealthy individuals — to fund the Marshall Project’s $4-5 million annual budget, which will support a full-time staff of 20-25 journalists.

“Online journalism business models are challenging,” he noted in reference to his choice to go the not-for-profit route. “There is a civic good in quality enterprise journalism, and we have seen more and more successful non-profits like ProPublica,” he said, referring to another New York-based news organization launched in 2008.

While there is nothing inherently Jewish about Barsky’s project (which is named for Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice), the publisher does acknowledge that it is consistent with his proud Jewish identity and the values of social justice he learned at Jewish school and at home as he was growing up.

And he’s already thinking about how the Marshall Project model might be applied to the thorny issue of peace for Israel and its neighbors.

“If this model of a non-partisan journalism website on a single issue works, then it can be applied to other problems to be solved — even the Middle East conflict,” he said.

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