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April 23, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
Business Models

Months from launch, The Markup abruptly fired cofounder Julia Angwin, setting off an editorial exodus

The majority of the site’s editorial staff resigned this morning, and the future of a much-anticipated watchdog for technology companies is very much in doubt.

The Markup — the highly anticipated nonprofit news site that planned to explore the societal impacts of big tech and algorithms — has fired Julia Angwin, its much-respected cofounder and editor-in-chief. The Markup’s editorial team published a letter of “unequivocal support” for Angwin, who says that she was let go over email Monday night. The move baffled journalists on Tuesday, but Angwin said her ouster was the result of tension over the editorial mission of the site — specifically, whether it should take an “advocacy approach” or an “evidence- and data-driven approach.”

Angwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, left ProPublica about a year ago to launch the site. At ProPublica, she’d been an investigative reporter who’d built a team pairing programmers and journalists that specialized in investigating the opaque algorithms that influence our lives. ProPublica data scientist Jeff Larson went with her, and, as my colleague Christine Schmidt reported last year, Sue Gardner, formerly of the Wikimedia Foundation and the CBC, was their third cofounder and executive director.

“I’m devastated to be forced out of the organization I conceived to pursue rigorous, evidence-based tech accountability journalism,” Angwin told The New York Times in a statement (and a tweet). “I will continue to pursue that mission and hope to find other ways to help build this field.” She also made a series of accusations about Gardner’s leadership, saying Gardner “is now seeking to change the mission of the newsroom to one based on advocacy against the tech companies…a ‘cause’ rather than a ‘publication.’” Angwin also said that Gardner first asked her to resign as editor-in-chief a month ago “to become a columnist, writing opinion articles.”

Gardner and Larson provided statements to the Times as well. “There is no change in the mission or purpose of The Markup,” Gardner said. “We are, pure and simple, a news outlet, we always have been and always will be. Our goals and purpose haven’t changed…We are not going to talk about the circumstances of Julia Angwin leaving The Markup, because as a matter of standard practice we don’t talk about personnel or HR issues.” Larson: “The Markup attempted to meet with Ms. Angwin in person, and discussions about her role had been ongoing for some time. This was not abrupt.”

The Markup’s editorial team is not happy about this. They collectively created a Twitter account, The Real Team Markup (bio: “The Real Team Markup In Exile”), and on Tuesday it published Angwin’s letter to philanthropist and Craiglist founder Craig Newmark, who provided $20 million of the $23 million that The Markup had raised to launch.

And an editorial exodus has begun, with the resignations of Jon Keegan, Lauren Kirchner, Surya Mattu, and Adrienne Jeffries, and Leon Yin — the majority of the site’s editorial staff.

(Update, 1:21 p.m.: After this story was published, The Markup tweeted a “Some news:” press release that provided little insight. And new editor-in-chief Jeff Larson tweeted a similarly opaque thread.)

The tension Angwin alleges — which, again, Gardner disputes is the issue here — is increasingly common in reporting on technology. The largest tech companies, accustomed to generally positive press until the 2016 Brexit and Trump elections, are now often seen as powerful titans destabilizing democracies, fueling misinformation and violence, encoding discrimination, and almost offhandedly crushing industries. Some journalists have moved to combine investigative reporting with a bit of the crusader’s zeal — like The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, who has done excellent reporting on issues like Cambridge Analytica scandal but is also comfortable saying that “liberal democracy was broken” and that Facebook & Co. “had broke it.” The sort of sentiment that Angwin accused Gardner of wanting in Markup journalism — “Facebook is a dumpster fire” — is not that hard to find on the tech-journalism web. But it doesn’t line up perfectly with what The Markup had framed itself as, which was more like a scientific engine that produced journalism:

The Markup is a new kind of journalistic organization, staffed with people who know how to investigate the uses of new technologies and make their effects understandable to non-experts. Our work is scientific and data-driven in nature. We develop hypotheses and assemble the data — through crowdsourcing, through FOIAs, and by scraping public sources — to surface stories.

On Tuesday, Media Twitter rallied around Angwin, including a public statement of support on Medium. The fate of The Markup without her is unclear; presumably Craig Newmark, as the site’s primary funder, will have some say in that. (He didn’t respond to a Times request for comment; when asked about it at an event today, he replied “I can’t ethically comment right now.”) But it’s unclear if there’s a board or other governance structure that could revisit this decision.

Photo of Julia Angwin speaking at the 2018 O’Reilly Strata Conference by O’Reilly Conferences used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 23, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
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