This was first published in PJP’s Jan. 2022 newsletter, “Inside Story: Under the Hood.”
Last October, we overhauled our website with a new logo, new layout, and lots of new content.
If you’ve followed PJP’s work since our inception, you might recall that we started out by publishing stories written from the inside on Medium in June 2020 before moving to our own website a month later.
That first website felt very much like a homespun effort — co-founder Shaheen’s friend designed our first wonderful black and gold logo — but when the site finally launched, we immediately realized that it was only a matter of time before we’d outgrow it.
We started receiving stories at a faster pace than expected, and our writers had a lot they wanted to tell us: about themselves, COVID-19, their day-to-day lives, their opinions about the criminal legal system, how the killing of George Floyd personally affected them, what it’s like to be gay or transgender in prison, and much more. Within months, as predicted, our online publishing platform was straining at the seams as we bumped into one technological limitation after another — such as when a story required multiple bylines.
We knew we needed a publishing platform that was robust and flexible, one that would allow us to establish ourselves as a news organization. More importantly, we needed a content management system that would better support our writers’ immense breadth of work — breaking news, feature stories, opinion and perspectives, poetry, visual stories — and help PJP bring more transparency into the U.S. carceral system. A tall order when you don’t have any budget!
In asking around some of our fellow nonprofit journalism colleagues, we learned about Newspack, a publishing platform developed by the same company, Automattic, that created Wordpress. Newspack was aimed directly at small and medium-sized news publications like ours and had been adopted by publishers all over the world.
In late February 2021, we signed up to receive a virtual demo of Newspack by two of their team leaders, and I happened to mention that I had no idea how we could possibly afford to adopt their platform. “You should apply for the Knight Foundation grant,” was their reply. James L. and John S. Knight Foundation was about to open their invitation to “newsrooms serving underrepresented communities” for a $20,000 Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant it was making available to 26 publishers. One of the reps had been a judge for the same grant the previous year and assured us that we’d have a good shot.
In late May 2021, we learned that Prison Journalism Project was selected as one of the Knight Foundation’s 2021 SPS grantees out of 175 candidates!
The next five months were a mad scramble of activity. We signed on with Newspack (thankfully, their technical team helped us with the data migration); hired designer Cait Palmiter to redesign our logo and the front-end look of our website (she also designed our print newspaper PJP x Inside); retooled and honed our mission statement with Dogpaw Studio consultancy; began the arduous task of re-categorizing and re-tagging nearly 1,000 stories; and literally started a wish list of all the new content we wanted.
We are still working our way through that list, but so far, we’ve created a new section highlighting our correspondence-based PJP J-School that we launched last summer and a page of outside resources for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers and artists. We hope to soon publish a round-up of prison newspapers across the country; a resources toolkit for mainstream journalists who want to work with prison journalists; and my pet project — an interactive heat map of the U.S. with the locations of all of our writers.
But for all of the work that we’ve put into creating this new website, one of our most important pages is each of our writer’s portfolio pages, like Dorothy’s below. Every author whose work we accept has their own portfolio page, which includes a short biography and their list of stories published on our site. Why is this important? We were recently reminded by PJP’s director of multimedia Christopher Etienne, who was once incarcerated himself.
“When people transition from prison, often they are seen as convicts first, and their sins of the past end up smearing the person they are today… When you look them up on [the PJP site], it’s not their convictions, but their talent, their creativity, their investigative journalism talent and their humanity that comes up. PJP doesn’t just give voices to the voiceless. It also allows us to humanize individuals and let their stories outshine their mistakes.”
Back in the beginning of 2020, we started out by publishing the stories of only several dozen authors. Today, we have about 415 writers listed on our site, with another 250 or so whose work is waiting to be edited.
Managing PJP’s website has proven to be a continually moving target as we continue to grow and evolve as an organization. We have endless ideas for how we can produce and showcase journalism from inside the walls in new ways.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.