It’s late morning on a Friday in mid-July. Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, has a serious look on his face as he sits in his small office at The Marshall Project in Midtown Manhattan and replies to e-mails. Outside his door are cubicles and offices that look just like his, glass-enclosed with corporate wooden modular furniture. There’s a stillness to the place, which feels more like a sleepy law firm than a newsroom devoted to investigative journalism on the U.S. criminal justice system.
But Keller, 66, says he “enjoys” the slower pace, after 30 years at the Times, eight of which he served as the top editor. Now as editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization that launched a year ago with an annual budget of $5 million, Keller focuses less on breaking news and more on analysis and deep-dive stories.
Surely Keller must yearn for the days when he was a reporter covering the end of apartheid in South Africa or the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union — or as the Times’ executive editor running the paper’s page one meeting? “I don’t miss it at all,” he said with a grin. WWD sat down with Keller to talk about his views on The New York Times, the survival of investigative journalism through nonprofits and whether digital media companies are overvalued.
Now that you’re out of the newspaper business, what do you think is the future of print?
I think the most obvious change in print is there’s a lot less of it. The print places that have survived are pretty successful and have realized that by the time you get a print newspaper, you probably know the basics of the story because you’ve read it online or heard it on radio or TV.
We do almost all of our stories through a partnership experience, which can range from collaborating with them on the reporting and writing the story to us just offering them the opportunity of copublishing with us. I’ve noticed that when you partner with a print newspaper — we’ve partnered with both The New York Times and The Washington Post — you really have greater impact because people who make policy still tend to live more in the analogue world. That will change eventually. There’s a generation that just does not read print.
Will print survive in smaller quantities, as the Times’ current executive editor, Dean Baquet, has suggested?
I don’t think that paper will go away entirely. It may become a boutique kind of thing. I think the last print places to survive will be the smaller communities where the local advertisers still buy ads in the newspapers where they don’t need the reach of online…. But the trend [of print waning] is irreversible.
On “The Daily Show” in 2009, you addressed the importance of print newspapers and were critical of digital companies like The Huffington Post, noting that it doesn’t have a bureau in Baghdad because it’s too expensive. Has your view changed?
I don’t think that’s a question of print versus digital. I think that’s a question of how news organizations want to define themselves — whether they want to be a one-stop shop or cultivate a particular niche — either a cultural niche or a subject-matter niche. There are a lot of places that want to occupy the one-stop spot that the daily newspapers used to occupy. Places like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice — they are placing their bets on whether they can cover anything and make it interesting. A lot of that they cover by aggregating old media and they are going to run out of old media eventually if newspapers keep dying off. Then you wonder, who are they going to aggregate?
One of the most interesting trends in online journalism has been watching places that started out as essentially aggregators try to start making investments in original reporting. Vice sends people all over the world, BuzzFeed has an investigative unit — they have a full-time death penalty reporter — I see those as positive trends. I don’t know if they are going to sustain those efforts. Huffington Post, for example, went through a phase of hiring editors and reporters to do original journalism, but it seems to plateau because I guess they calculated that that’s not what people really come to HuffPo for.
What do you think of native advertising and the changing role that a media company plays today?
Advertising is advertising. Giving the slogan of a sponsor on NPR or print ads in a magazine or animated ads on Vox or BuzzFeed — the test is, first of all, whether you can distinguish an ad and impartial content. That’s what makes people nervous about native advertising — it’s a slippery slope toward people being unable to make the distinction. The blurrier that line gets, the more dangerous it is for the credibility of the news organization. If you want to be a quality news organization, what you’re selling is trust. For a place like The New York Times to go too far down that road on native advertising would be suicidal. For a place like Gawker, it probably doesn’t matter because people bring a certain expectation to the site.
Is the nonprofit model the savior of investigative print journalism?
It’s a model. It’s not the only model, I don’t think. One way or another, you have to raise the money. ProPublica and The Marshall Project raise it from foundations and wealthy individuals. That works for us, but I don’t think you could replace the investigative reporting might of news media in the United States by setting up nonprofit.
Which digital companies do you partner with on stories?
We’ve partnered with Vice, FiveThirtyEight, Fusion, Matter, Slate. We’ve done newspapers. We’ve partnered with NPR and WNYC, their New York affiliate. We’re still inventing the partnership model as we go along. ProPublica was the pioneer in this. We’ve also partnered with magazines [like the] Atlantic, online, Washington Monthly in print and online, The New Republic both in print and online, The New Yorker, New York Magazine.
Does a foundation come to you with a story to investigate?
We make it really clear to funders up front that we’re not an advocacy organization. What we do is create the context so that advocates can do their work — we expose the problems that need fixing, but we aren’t prescribing the fixes. Most of the foundation and individual grants have been general-purpose. Some of the foundations want a particular emphasis.
Does the media partner approach you with the story idea, then?
There are many ways. Most of the people we partnered with approached us [in the beginning]. When we assign a story with significant scale now, one of the first conversations we have is who are the potential partners. It works best when we involve them early, even if we do most of the reporting. Some places do their own editing on top of whatever editing we do — they have their own style, and that’s fine.
What are your deadlines like?
We have a mix. Longer pieces are not attached to news, and our shorter pieces are, but we’re not going to write breaking news stories and send somebody to Ferguson, Mo., and stand alongside reporters from other outlets, and watch the mood of the crowd. We look for new angles, ways to supply some context.
The mission is to cover criminal justice, but do you ever look to broaden that or cover international criminal justice issues?
We wander a little off the reservation. Criminal justice is a fairly elastic category. We write about immigration issues sometimes because one of the largest categories of incarcerated people in federal prisons is people who are there for immigration violations and likewise drug policies. There are people who are in jail for relatively unserious drug crimes. The only thing we’ve done so far that goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the United States is we sent a reporter with a delegation of American corrections officials to Germany, and he wrote a five-day travelogue with these guys, looking at how the Germans do things, which was really fascinating.
What are your views on Facebook’s involvement in distributing the news?
Probably different, if I was still at the Times. The Times is one of those organizations experimenting with having its content delivered on Facebook. I think if I were at the Times I’d be a little nervous about Facebook, about them essentially cornering the ad market for themselves. At The Marshall Project, we’re not selling ads. Our main concern is to get the stories as widely read as possible, and if Facebook wants to distribute our content to its gazillion unique readers, I don’t have any complaints with that. When one of our pieces gets picked up by Yahoo News or The Huffington Post, we’re delighted because it drives traffic.
What’s an example of a viral story you did?
We did a short but elaborate piece on prison food, the fact that it’s nutritionally very bad. There are many prisons being sued by inmates who are claiming they are essentially being starved to death. Two of our reporters and our art director actually prepared prison meals following the precise directions that were uncovered in these lawsuits and we photographed them.
Did you try the food?
I didn’t, but The Huffington Post loved the visuals and they put a photograph on their homepage with a link to us and the audience just went crazy. We’ve had upward of 100,000 hits so far.
How many stories do you produce a week?
When we started out, for the first 15 minutes we thought of ourselves as ProPublica for criminal justice reforms and investigative pieces. Then we thought, we can produce one really good investigative piece a month with a small staff. That’s not enough to sustain a Web site and there’s a need for more than that. We’ve gone back and forth about what’s the right number of pieces to file in a given week. We try to put up something new every day — some days it’s one, some days it’s three. They don’t all have to be deep-dive pieces.
How big is your staff of reporters?
We have nine staff writers. The newsroom as a whole is about 25, plus a couple of interns.
Where’s the ethical line between advocacy and journalism?
What I tell our reporters and editors is that I want our standards of objectivity and open-mindedness to be as rigorous as I would expect them to be at The New York Times or The Washington Post. Whatever assumptions we bring to a story, we test in the world of facts. We avoid loaded language that sort of tips our own ideological hands. That said, there is a difference — I feel it myself — from the Times. I think most people who work at The New York Times feel that they have a sense of civic purpose. They genuinely believe that journalism is an essential part of a functioning democracy and that if you don’t have a robust press, you can’t have real freedom. That’s not something you think about every day. It’s a bit of an abstract principle that maybe helped draw you into this line of work. Here we do have a sense of mission, which is, we see a system from law enforcement through the courts system and into prisons and the supervision of people who have gotten out of prison, [and it] is a mess. Our mission is to expose things that aren’t working and to look for things, reforms, new inventions, that seem to work, and go test them, try to hold them up to the same scrutiny that we do to the failures, too. You do feel more of a sense of mission here, you feel closer to the ground, I guess.
What are your thoughts on video as more media companies are crowding the space?
I think there’s a real demand for the shorter videos. YouTube is evidence of that. We’ve done short videos with our partners. We did one with Al-Jazeera’s offshoot, AJ Plus. There’s clearly a market for some kinds of online video, but I don’t know how long the attention span is for longer video.
Investigative stories in video seem to be more successful at a place like Vice than the Times. Why?
I think the difference is the approach. The New York Times starts out thinking of things as written stories — whether they are in print or for the Web site. Vice keeps its television unit pretty much in a separate silo than its online and magazine. The TV unit, when they do a piece, they start pretty much like “60 Minutes” or “Frontline,” conceiving of it as a video piece, and I think that works. It’s very hard to take a massive investigation of Rikers Island — that great investigation that the Times did on the brutality on Rikers Island jails — and then reconceive it as video. You have to think video first and that’s very hard for a place like the Times to do.
What do you read these days?
I read the Times in print in the morning, but I also get the morning briefing, the afternoon briefing and the alerts on my phone. I look at The Wall Street Journal online, but not as much as I used to, just because they don’t have as great an interest in justice stuff unless it’s rich people’s asset forfeiture. They are interested in that. I read our own morning e-mail and I often read the links because I try to keep as current as I can on criminal justice issues. I have other issues that, for personal historical reasons, I follow. I follow what goes on in Russia and in South Africa, two places that I covered. I follow a Web site in South Africa called The Daily Maverick. I occasionally go to some of the Russian Web sites. I have different nutritional needs. When I was running the Times, I had to know a little bit about everything that was going on. I also try to keep an eye on new ventures just because I’m interested in what’s happening in the start-up world. I look at Vox, I look at FiveThirtyEight, I look at The Intercept, I look at the places we partner with, I look at The Atlantic’s Web site, which I think is terrific.
You’ve mentioned digital companies like Vice, Vox and BuzzFeed, all of which have high valuations. Are they overvalued?
It feels like a bubble to me. I read a piece in the Times magazine about The Huffington Post, which is now 10 years in and publishes 2,000 posts a day. It claims to be just now breaking even. I don’t know what the valuation of The Huffington Post is, but what value would you put on a place that isn’t making money after 10 years? I’m not an investor, but I’m the wrong guy to ask.
What’s a dream story for you to get?
We only launched eight months ago, but I have a huge list. But the most interesting stories are often not with the most obvious sources. The single most viral piece that we’ve done is a Q&A I did with David Simon, the inventor of “The Wire,” the mastermind behind that great TV series, after the Baltimore riots and the Freddie Gray killing. He was a former Baltimore Sun reporter who covered the streets of Baltimore and he just went on this tear about how the war on drugs destroyed the Baltimore police department. I don’t know — half-a-million people have read that interview.
Part of your firm’s mission is to do the investigative stories financially struggling media companies can no longer do well. Was Rolling Stone’s story about the alleged rape at the University of Virginia a victim of a lack of means or was it just bad journalism?
I think that was just bad journalism. I don’t know what the internal dynamic was…but they just let down their guard way too much. Those things often go hand-in-hand — the willingness to gloss over the holes in your story and the defects in the reporting because you feel like you’ve got a great story and a great scoop and you want to beat everybody else. A lot of the Times’ coverage before the invasion of Iraq about the threat of Saddam Hussein, I think was kind of credulous and sloppy reporting that was put on the front page by editors and reporters who were just driven by the thrill of the chase and the yearning to have an exclusive.
How do you view the Times’ adaptation to the digital landscape?
I think journalistically, they are doing an excellent job. We started pretty early, back when I could say “we” and mean me at The New York Times. We were relatively early to the idea that digital would be the answer and eventually be our primary way of reaching readers. I think journalistically, the paper has continued to adapt really well. The economic side is just more complicated. The last year I was executive editor was the year we settled on a subscription model, which seems to be successful, but only up to a certain point. Eventually, you hit a plateau. What’s gone on since then looks from the outside like a lot of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. If it doesn’t work, you rejigger it and try something else. The bad part of that is that it contributes to this sense of insecurity that the whole industry feels. The good part of it is, the Times, despite its caricatured version of this hide-bound, old fashioned-place, is actually a laboratory, and over the last, say, 10 years or so, it has become a place where all kinds of experiments are going on. I get a pension from The New York Times, so I really hope they succeed. I don’t know of any place that’s of the so-called legacy media that’s doing it better.
Keller announcing The New York Times staff Pulitzer Prize winners in 2011.