Armstrong credits that year in law school with honing his investigative
talents. He can work through civil and criminal procedures and doesn’t
shy away from what initially appears tremendously complex. But the law,
ironically, lacked one chief element for Armstrong—freedom. Every time he
would want to move throughout his career, he thought, he’d first have to pass
a licensing exam.
“Some reporters find stories in Paris. I find them in Peoria,” Armstrong
quipped. “Chasing stories, I’ve gone from Rupert, Idaho, to Estherville,
Iowa, from Eureka, Nevada, which is not aptly named, to Grayville,
Illinois, which is.
“Favorite place: any place that isn’t Rock Springs, Wyoming.”
It all started in West Lafayette, where Armstrong worked as an undergrad
at The Exponent. While attending Purdue and fully intending to study law,
Armstrong found that he spent an inordinate amount of time in the newsroom.
By 1984, his passion had pushed him to the position of editor-in-chief. If not
for cramming 23 credit hours into his final semester, that love for journalism
might have kept him from graduating on time.
That continued fervor still motivates Armstrong. His current boss, Bill
Keller, saw it firsthand during their initial meeting. Armstrong pitched Keller
a story about a loophole caused by a change in American juvenile law. His
passion won over Keller, who later offered him a job.
“That first exchange contained the qualities that make Ken such a fine
journalist: meticulous research, a fair and open mind, powerful storytelling,
a knack for seeing through the fog to the heart of a story, a gift for putting a
human face on the vagaries of the law, and—something I prize highly—the
ability to take on complicated subjects and make them accessible without
papering over the nuances,” says Keller, former executive editor at The New
York Times and now editor-in-chief at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system.
“I think Ken is driven by two things: the love of a story and a passion
Attracted by the goals of The Marshall Project, Armstrong accepted Keller’s
job offer and penned the project’s launch article in November 2014. The piece
targeted a legal provision setting a rigid deadline for filing final appeals from
death row. He detailed 80 cases where men had legitimate grounds to be heard
but their lawyers had missed the filing deadline. According to Keller, the piece
drew interest from the American Bar Association, which planned to “take up
The Marshall Project’s content goes against the current school of short and
snappy online prose, high on baiting a click but low on detail. It’s not unusual
for an article at themarshallproject.org to scroll 30 or more screens in depth.
That works for Armstrong, who spends more time combing through
documents than in cloak-and-dagger parking garage meetups. Thorough
research elicits the ability to write with authority, according to Armstrong.
And thoroughness often conflicts with brevity.
“People are hungry for stories—and they’ll read long, so long as they’re not
bored,” says Armstrong. “And stories that are well-crafted and deeply reported
can change the way we see our world.”
By Kristal Arnold. Photo by Steve Ringman of The Seattle Times (page 16). Photo by
© iStockphoto.com/sekulicn (this page).
NOTE: I had to cheat grid width and top
starting point on page 17 otherwise story
including byline info would run 78 words over