On building journalistic pirate ships

In the waning days of my career as a newspaper reporter, my colleagues and I talked a lot about pirate ships.

The notion came from a piece David Carr wrote shortly before the death of Ben Bradlee, in which Carr described Bradlee as a pirate, and the Washington Post as his ship. I think it was Jeff Proctor who first called it out:

Pirate ship, York, UK

Pirate ship, York, UK

We were tethered to an institution and model that just weren’t working for us, that increasingly felt ill suited to the kind of stories we wanted to tell. So we’d sit at lunch and swap dreams about building pirate ships. Mostly the work involved continuing to ride on the staid S.S. Albuquerque Journal, borrowing skiffs and going on little raids. (Someone should teach a class in journalism school about the art of the “budget note” – the delicate dance between the one-sentence blurb you write in the morning to get a story the green light and the final version you turn in on deadline. I’ve always felt it was one of my greatest journalistic skills.)

It was a decent model for a long time. But the institutional constraints were substantial. For me, it was the form of the newspaper story. It was ill suited to the depth and complexity of the issues I was trying to understand – demanding of narrow story lines and uncomfortable with uncertainty. For others, it was the Journal’s politics and self-understanding of its audience.

Inspired by Jeff and others, I built a pirate ship, a hull patched with a book contract and a university faculty gig and the time to pursue the odd curiosities that somehow brought y’all to my door (thanks for stopping by!).

I’m delighted to report that Jeff’s now built his pirate ship, with the announcement today of The Justice Project, based at New Mexico In Depth. I’ll let Jeff explain:

To me, the justice system offers the widest lens through which to examine issues of fairness, class, race and ethnicity, access, state power, transparency and how the U.S. Constitution is applied. And the stakes could not be higher: the safety of the public, people’s livelihoods, freedom vs. imprisonment — even, in many instances, life and death.

Jeff is one of the most morally passionate and talented journalists I’ve every had the privilege of working alongside. I’m very much looking forward to this.


  1. Nice.
    On building pirate ships.
    “Basket Case” Carl Hiassen
    “Disrupting Class” and “The Innovator’s Solution” both by Clayton Christensen
    On my blog are more references to building pirate ships, mostly in education or business.
    Aargh, matey!

  2. I wish the ABQ Journal were run by someone like Ben Bradlee as a “pirate ship.” There is so much to be investigated and published in NM, and the current “barge” is so very far from being the dominant newspaper for all of the state.

  3. Let’s hear it for Admiral Jennings and his growing fleet of deep-diving sub-mariners like Proctor and Paskus. They’ll shiver some NM timbers, for sure.

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