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April 25, 2019, 11:13 a.m.
Business Models

Support for Julia Angwin grows as funders investigate the “coup” at The Markup

After her ouster as editor-in-chief, multiple funders say they are taking steps to “reassess” their support.

A couple of days after Julia Angwin was fired as editor-in-chief of The Markup — the nonprofit investigative news outlet she co-founded — support for her in one key sector has grown. The foundations who have backed the much-anticipated startup, led by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, issued a joint statement saying they are looking into Angwin’s firing, which set off an exodus of Markup employees, and plan to “reassess” their support of the site.

While Newmark’s tweet was on behalf of all the funders mentioned, several foundations sent out their own additional messages.

The Markup was born to investigate the societal impact of algorithms through data-centered journalism, building on award-winning work that Angwin did at ProPublica. “I think journalism needs a new guiding light, a new philosophical approach, and I think that approach should be the scientific method,” Angwin told my colleague Christine Schmidt last year. Angwin now argues that Sue Gardner, the third Markup cofounder along with Jeff Larson, wanted to push The Markup toward a decidedly non-scientific approach, taking on more of an anti-big-tech-advocacy role and publishing “takes” like “Facebook is a dumpster fire.”

After a vague statement Tuesday that didn’t even mention the firing, the remaining Markup staff voiced their side of the story last night in a Medium post by Larson. He argues that Angwin was a bad boss who was responsible for the site’s slow rollout and refused to accept either help with her job or a shift to another role.

Over a period of many months, though, it became clear that The Markup did not have the right leadership structure in place to be successful. It has been reported that Julia’s departure was abrupt and a surprise, and that there was “no discussion” of a new role. That is not true. As early as December 21st, we started a conversation — Sue Gardner, Julia and I — about crafting a different role for Julia that would keep her as a central part of The Markup. As a co-Founder and talented journalist, we wanted Julia to remain the public face and voice of the institution, and to assume a role that would put her front and center, driving much of our most important journalism.

We kicked around a lot of ideas together about what to do: one of us could become investigative lead. We could recruit an experienced Editor in Chief from outside the organization. Sue and I were totally willing to craft any role that would work for Julia, that would be a fit for her considerable talent, and that would give us a leadership structure that played to our strengths and was the best structure moving forward…

We fundamentally believe that HR issues should remain private, and so we didn’t want to comment on Julia’s departure, because it’s an internal personnel matter. We believe saying nothing is the most respectful and kindest approach. We still believe that, and I am still reluctant to say more. But I recognize the need to set the record straight.

The Markup had planned to launch early in 2019. At that time, we were expecting to have an editorial staff of 24. But by late 2018 it was clear that we had fallen far, far behind. Hiring was slow. Recruitment was slow. Even as of this month, we didn’t have stories banked. We didn’t have editorial processes in place to accept and develop pieces. We hadn’t developed areas of coverage. We still lacked an editorial value proposition. We were very far behind.

Both Julia and I, having not run newsrooms at this level, were asked to participate in management training and coaching. Recognizing my own shortcomings, I jumped at the opportunity. Julia refused, and was not interested in any of the support offered, and did not want any feedback.

Finally, there were other management and leadership issues at play, that led us to have a breakdown in trust between the three of us as co-founders. Again, it’s not my place to lay that bare. And I won’t. But where it left us was in a position where Julia refused to discuss any role other than Editor in Chief, and would not consider any other configuration. So unfortunately we made the decision to remove her from that role.

Angwin got to respond this morning during a live podcast interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher.

At least judging by reactions to Larson’s piece on Media Twitter, it does not appear that Markup management’s reasoning has satisfied everyone.

And it’s worth remembering that the statement signed by all of The Markup’s editorial staff — five of whom resigned over Angwin’s ouster — specifically rejected the idea that she was a bad boss: “During our time here, we have benefited from her professional management style, and her effectiveness as both a manager and an editor…Julia has kept us on track for launch, run effective and efficient meetings, and had her finger on the pulse of our various stories and projects, all while doing the grunt work required to build a stable and collaborative newsroom.”

The Markup had raised $23 million (with $20 million of that coming from Newmark), and launch was slated for this summer.

Angwin — buoyed by a public statement of support that had been signed by more than 140 academics, journalists, policymakers, and others as of Thursday morning — took to the podcast circuit to stress that her vision for a site like The Markup remains. “I want this team and I want this mission, and I want to build this,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter on his Reliable Sources podcast. “I don’t quite know the mechanics of how this works, but I can tell you my vision is exactly the same.” (The podcast episode is here.)

Photo of Julia Angwin and Kara Swisher in Washington, D.C. this morning courtesy Ben Pauken.

POSTED     April 25, 2019, 11:13 a.m.
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