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Feb. 25, 2020, 2:22 p.m.

“Big tech is watching you. Who’s watching big tech?” The Markup is finally ready for liftoff

After a false start, the unconventional team of algorithm investigators is ready to dive deep. “I’ve heard that we are tying our hands behind our backs, but there must be a way to engage an audience without subjecting readers to a surveillance ecosystem.”

Five weeks. That’s how long it took The Markup — the new digitally savvy investigative publication, focused on tech accountability, that launched today — to find someone who could send out its email newsletters without violating its privacy standards.

The Markup tested and rejected eight different email providers — including the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Mailchimp — before finally turning to Revue, a small Dutch company that agreed to custom-build a newsletter with no user-tracking features. (No one had requested the option before, apparently.)

The process ended up being longer — and more expensive — than the outlet’s founders anticipated. But then again, not much about the road to The Markup’s long-awaited launch this week has been easy.

Originally slated to launch in early 2019, The Markup was dreamed up by a journalist-programmer pair — Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson — who brought on a third cofounder, Sue Gardner, who had previously led the Wikimedia Foundation. Anticipation grew for the nonprofit news organization that promised to build on the prize-winning investigations that Angwin and Larson had worked on together at ProPublica.

Just months from launch, however, chaos: Gardner and Larson forced out Angwin, the project’s most prominent public face, a move that prompted The Markup’s editorial team to resign en masse in protest. Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder who had contributed most of the $23 million raised for The Markup’s launch, promised to look into the firing. What followed was an array of accusations and counteraccusations about management styles, techlash, and spreadsheets.

A few months later, the machine got rebooted, this time without Gardner and Larson. Angwin and her editorial team were reinstated and Nabiha Syed, former general counsel at BuzzFeed, was announced as president. (Angwin and Syed will both report to an independent board of directors.)

The leadership dustup may have been a unique gift for a team-based newsroom that will pair data scientists and journalists together on collaborative investigations. The editorial team rallied behind the publication’s mission of impartial, investigative journalism — not anti-tech advocacy, as some accused Gardner of pushing for — and ended up spending a lot of time working out of Angwin’s living room as governance issues were sorted out.

“I never would have wished for those events to happen, but it was actually an excellent team-building exercise,” Angwin said. “It wasn’t about me and my vision, it was about us and our vision. We really pulled together and I think, even today, that we all feel a sense of ownership in it.”

“Like I said, I would not have chosen it,” Angwin added, laughing. “But I bet you a lot of companies would pay a lot of money for that amount of solidarity to be created amongst their crew.”

On opening day, The Markup crew led with an investigative feature on a previously undisclosed algorithm used by the insurance giant Allstate, two “Ask The Markup” features about DNA testing kits and online shopping, and letters from Angwin and Syed. Each article provides embed code to republish it via Creative Commons license.

That Allstate story is copublished with Consumer Reports. It’s in some ways the Platonic form of a Markup story: A large corporation (Allstate) makes important decisions (how much you pay for car insurance) using an algorithm that’s seemingly inscrutable to the people affected by it. The Markup — using its “unparalleled roster of quantitative journalists…committed to finding the true meaning in large amounts of data” — figures out that the algorithm isn’t making decisions the way it’s supposed to. That finding gets rendered confidently in prose:

…we found that, despite the purported complexity of Allstate’s price-adjustment algorithm, it was actually simple: It resulted in a suckers list of Maryland customers who were big spenders and would squeeze more money out of them than others.

…as well as in a deep technical explanation that goes far beyond what most data journalism offers: more than 5,000 words, 21 footnotes, three scatterplots, one decision tree, 10 other charts, and a “Confusion Matrix.”

The Allstate story also features an unusually detailed set of credits at the bottom of the story — an indication of the disparate sets of skills needed to do the sort of algorithm inquisition that The Markup aims for.

The site’s digital Page 1 also prominently promotes a tips page that encourages readers to share information, with a list of options also shows The Markup’s range: regular old email, encrypted messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp, snail mail (“the Post Office cannot open your mail without a search warrant”), or SecureDrop over Tor. Oh, and a signup form for that custom-built, privacy-first email newsletter.

A newsroom apart

Most of The Markup’s 19-person newsroom is based in New York. There are two staffers working from California, but they’re based in Los Angeles, not San Francisco or Silicon Valley. The distance is intentional, and it isn’t measured only in miles: While other tech publications sometimes face criticism for getting too close to the world they’re covering, The Markup is doing its own thing.

“We deliberately decided not to have a Silicon Valley bureau,” said Angwin. “We’re an investigative outlet, doing deep investigations and explanatory work that asks, ‘What does this all mean?’ And honestly, I feel like you get a better perspective for that type of work when you’re a little more removed from the industry.”

The site also plans to distinguish itself from tech-focused peers through what Angwin and Syed have dubbed “The Markup Method,” à la the scientific method.

It’s a three-step process:

Build. We ask questions and collect or build the datasets we need to test our hypotheses.

Bulletproof. We bulletproof our stories through a rigorous review process, inviting external experts and even the subjects of investigations to challenge our findings.

Show our work. We share our research methods by publishing our datasets and our code. And we explain our approach in detailed methodological write-ups.

Angwin, a Palo Alto native who studied math at the University of Chicago and pursued computer programming before she found journalism, said The Markup is inspired by that scientific approach of amassing evidence, sharing methods, and providing data for other researchers to challenge or build on their work. Building data sets themselves allows The Markup to do more than just “opportunistic” data journalism that makes “a pretty visual” out of existing data sets, Angwin said.

Using public records requests, web scraping, and other resource-intensive tools, The Markup hopes to tackle projects that other outlets don’t have the time or energy to complete. Don’t expect to read about product launches or earnings calls or today’s cybersecurity vulnerability — but the site does want to confront many-tentacled questions like “Is tech too big?” and “What impact are algorithms having on society?”

“We have some of the best data journalists and the most investigative firepower out there,” Angwin said. “We want to make sure we’re using it on the right problems.”

As part of “bulletproofing” their work, The Markup will present the targets of their investigations — typically technology companies and government agencies — with the data they’ve collected and the code they’ve used to analyze it before publication. “We offer them an opportunity to challenge our findings,” Angwin said. “Because the truth is that they have the most incentive to show us where we are wrong, and we want to find the flaws in our work.” (For today’s story, “Allstate declined to answer any of our detailed questions and did not raise any specific issues with our statistical analysis, which we provided to the company in November, including the code used to calculate our findings.”)

That “show your work” ethos will allow readers — whether academics, policymakers, or the general public — to see the data, code used to analyze it, methodological information, and explanatory videos to help them dig into things themselves, even if they don’t have experience in programming or data science. Angwin said she hopes other journalists, in particular, will be able to use the work to further the story and write about how the technology is affecting their own communities.

It’s not always advisable (or legal) to share original data and documents, however anonymized, and not every story will be accompanied by original data and documents. (Angwin mentioned Reality Winner, the NSA contractor currently serving a five-year sentence after the F.B.I. used clues on a printout shared by The Intercept to identify her as a reporter’s source.) But The Markup hopes to publish as much as it can; here’s the Allstate story’s data and code on GitHub.

Doing things differently

The Markup’s privacy policy is 2,771 words long, and each one of them is the result of considered thought. It promises readers they won’t be exposed to third-party tracking and that the site will not exploit or sell any of their information. Keeping this promise proved more challenging than the founder originally anticipated (as in its newsletter quest), but The Markup hopes that readers will appreciate the effort and support the nonprofit.

“If you feel grateful for the work and that we’re honoring your privacy, we hope that will encourage you to donate,” Angwin said. (Those millions from Newmark and other funders should help, too.)

Syed’s letter acknowledges the tradeoff. The Markup will have to do reader engagement and measure impact within the self-imposed limitations, which also preclude advertising, since digital ads almost always require reader-tracking elements.

Because we don’t track you, we won’t know if you like our work. We don’t know if you open our newsletter or if your cursor lingered over a particular story. We don’t have the metrics that let us approximate whether a story changed your worldview or, better yet, gave you the tools to change your world. All we have is…you. And so we will have to do things the analog way: We want to build a connection with you directly.

(As its donate page puts it: “We prefer doing things the hard way.”)

That kind of engagement approach means going back to the future. She says part of her efforts include reaching out to marketing professors and asking what audience engagement looked like in, say, 1985.

“I’ve heard that we are tying our hands behind our backs, but there must be a way to engage an audience without subjecting readers to a surveillance ecosystem,” Syed said. “The privacy policy creates tension with another trend in journalism, which is audience engagement, but I think it’s a fascinating opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and build the world we want to see.” Instead of user-tracking features, The Markup will rely on social media, direct feedback on the tools they build, event attendance, and participation in upcoming educational seminars.

Angwin said The Markup is also working on building privacy-protecting analytics tools, browser extensions, and custom forms that can structure the information readers and tipsters want to send along. (Structured data is a lot easier to analyze than responses to a callout for tips on Twitter.)

Its marketing is also distinctly analog. A striking street-art-style poster — by radical feminist film and digital studio Mala Forever — reading “Big Tech Is Watching You. Who’s Watching Big Tech? The Markup” went up last week in San Francisco. On Tuesday, New Yorkers will start seeing The Markup advertised on the subway. The publication also bought a billboard along a highway into Silicon Valley and will play videos on buildings in San Francisco this week.

“We want people to think about tech in the physical world, as they walk and live and breathe,” Syed said. The poster, she hears, is quite close to a bus stop for Google employees.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2020, 2:22 p.m.
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