'New York Times' Veteran Bill Keller Joins Marshall Project

Renee Montagne talks to Bill Keller, columnist and former executive editor, about his decision to leave The New York Times and help launch a journalism venture focusing on the U.S. criminal justice system called the Marshall Project.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A well-known name at The New York Times is making the change to digital. After 30 years at The Times as foreign correspondent, executive editor and columnist, Bill Keller announced yesterday he is leaving the paper. He joins journalist and former Wall Street money manager Neil Barsky, to report on the criminal justice system. The new venture is called The Marshall Project.

BILL KELLER: I think there's a little bit of adult ADD in all journalists, so we often find ourselves, after doing something for a couple of years, feeling a little restless. And I hadn't quite reached that point when Neil Barsky gave me a call and told me about this venture.

And it appealed on a number of levels. One of them was just the subject is so rich - criminal justice - and it's such a scandal how bad our criminal justice system is. We incarcerate more people than any other country on earth. And it's a window on race, it's a window on how we treat the mentally ill, and yet it's something that we prefer not to look that closely at because it's unsettling. And if we can make people pay a little more attention to it, then I will be very proud of that.

MONTAGNE: Well, he also, though - Neil Barsky also told The New York Times that he hoped to ignite a national conversation about the criminal justice system - in some sense, change society.

KELLER: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: How does that fit in with what you've been doing at The New York Times, a newspaper that, I think would never say quite that it was aiming to change society?

KELLER: Well, there's a lot of journalism that happens - even at mainstream institutions like The New York Times - with a sense of mission. Particularly, investigative reporting, you know, aims to expose abuses and right wrongs. There's nothing non-objective about that. At The Marshall Project, the standards of the reporting and writing will be New York Times standards. We will expect the journalism to be fair and accurate and independent and skeptical. We have a larger cause, but we're not going to be doing kind of polemical advocacy journalism. We're going to be doing journalism.

MONTAGNE: Talk for just a moment about the business model. It's a bit of a trick. It's not that easy to launch something. How do you see this moving forward, in terms of a going enterprise?

KELLER: Well, we will rise or fall on our ability to persuade people to give us money - kind of the way NPR operates, in fact.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLER: Somebody asked earlier today what would be the measure of success because, you know, in a newspaper your measures are scoops and prizes and traffic. And I think, you know, our elementary measure of success will be whether people see enough value to keep funding us.

MONTAGNE: Well, I am curious. You spent a lot of time defending old-fashioned journalism.

KELLER: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: And I'm wondering, as you look ahead, as a person who's been a foreign correspondent, chronicled the last years of the Soviet Union, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, where will readers turn for this kind of coverage in 15 years - coverage that's generalized?

KELLER: You know, people refer to what's going on in journalism as creative destruction. And to people at foundering newspapers, it feels more like destruction, but there's also an incredible amount of the creative part of that. My hunch is that there will be newspapers that adapt successfully to the new audiences and the new technology, and there will also be startups and things that haven't been entirely invented yet. You know, everybody's experimenting, and it's kind of fun to be in on the experimentation.

MONTAGNE: Well, Bill, just from me to you, welcome to the world of nonprofit journalism.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLER: Yeah. Well, there are people who would tell you that pretty much all of journalism is nonprofit these days.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, good luck in this new venture. And thank you very much for joining us.

KELLER: Thank you. Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Bill Keller, currently of The New York Times.

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