What the Hell is Neil Barsky Doing With His Money?

The Marshall Project is Neil Barsky's grand new venture. It's being billed as a "not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering America's criminal justice system." It's set to launch in mid-2014 and Barsky has already poached former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to act as The Marshall Project's editor-in-chief. So what does a former hedge fund manager like Barsky think he's doing by jumping into the newly expanding world of nonprofit digital journalism?

The truth is that Barsky views reporting as his first true love and a career in journalism as "the one that got away." He began as a reporter in his early twenties, first at the business desk of the New York Daily News, then at the Wall Street Journal where his beats were real estate and the gambling industry. He went on to become an analyst for Morgan Stanley, then subsequently went into the hedge fund business which is where he really made his money. At the height of his hedge fund career, his company, Alson Capital Partners, boasted over $3.5 billion in assets under management. But the journalism bug never really left him.

As he explained to CNN about his days as a reporter, "I loved getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror, and saying, 'I'm a reporter.' I took no great joy in saying, 'I'm an analyst' or 'I'm a hedge fund manager.' I was reluctant to leave my identity as a journalist. I loved journalism for the excitement of discovery. I loved getting exposure very quickly to so many different things. I still consider it to be among the highest callings. I really do."

When Barsky decided to do a documentary film on former New York Mayor Ed Koch and began filming in 2010, he wasn't a hedge fund manager gone rogue with a vanity project, he was merely returning to his roots. As a native New Yorker, Barsky saw the story of Ed Koch as emblematic of a particular time in the city's history.

As Barsky told Indiewire when his film debuted in 2013, "I think the [1980s were] a critical turning point for New York. This is the fall and rise of New York... Detroit and Baltimore never came back, but New York did."

This urge to tell an in-depth story with an emphasis on contextualization is one of the things that led him to launch the Marshall Project. It was also his belief that the traditional model for news gathering isn't sufficient for the digital age.

As the president of ProPublica, Richard Tofel, also told CNN, "[Barsky] has a good sense for the limits of market-based solutions, especially when it comes to deep investigative reporting." And these limits are especially evident when it comes to the type of reporting The Marshall Project plans to focus its efforts on.

"There is no way to cover the criminal justice, courts and prisons and make money from it," Barsky recently told the New York Post. "There's no way to support it with ads. In fact, I am skeptical if there is a way to support content sites anywhere. I know there are 'for profit' sites, but I suspect none of them have turned major profits. It’s a very difficult model."

The Marshall Project is predicated on two fundamental ideas. One is that there is a "pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems." The other is that Barsky feels that now is a more opportune moment than ever to launch this type of national conversation about the criminal justice system given that there is so much more awareness these days of the egregious failings of that system. And as for Keller's role as editor-in-chief, he's fully on board for the ride.

As Keller said recently, "Part of the appeal of it is that it's scary. I've spent the last 30 years operating over the safety net of The New York Times, which is great. But the opportunity to start something from scratch, to build it yourself and really make it the way you want, is pretty cool and challenging."

The Marshall Project's annual operating budget will be somewhere between $4 million and $5 million, with funding coming from Barsky himself, as well as various philanthropies and a number of different individual donors. The specifics are still being worked out, but what Keller and Barsky are looking to create is a site that produces "both short- and long-term investigations that can be distributed on the web and through partnerships."

As for the business model, Barsky believes that nonprofit journalism definitely has a better potential for sustainability over the long-term than does traditional for-profit journalism.

"A nonprofit organization has to sustain itself by being excellent and having an impact," he explained recently. "So does for-profit, frankly. But the difference is there are people of good will out there who are willing to support us if we do great work."

As Barsky says on their pre-launch website, "Our goal is to create a first-class news organization that will spark a national conversation about the troubled U.S. criminal justice system." And as he told the Post, "The way to effect change is through high-quality journalism."