Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The Washington Post launches a year in news à la Spotify Wrapped
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Aug. 2, 2022, 2:53 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“A bigger focus on the human impact of technology”: Sisi Wei is The Markup’s new editor-in-chief

“What we often don’t think about is how tech accountability is also so many other types of coverage. It’s labor coverage, climate change coverage, healthcare coverage, criminal justice coverage, immigration coverage — I could go on and on.”

This morning, The Markup, the nonprofit investigative news outlet that covers big tech, announced that Sisi Wei will be its new editor-in-chief.

The Markup launched in 2020 (after some hiccups) to explore the societal impacts of technology and algorithms. It makes all its data and code public and has found interesting ways to report on what platforms won’t make public, through initiatives like the Citizen Browser project.

Wei, the co-executive director of OpenNews, succeeds founder Julia Angwin who is currently the Markup’s editor-at-large. Her first day is Monday, August 22.

I caught up with Wei about how her experiences at ProPublica and OpenNews and founding the DEI Coalition Slack led her to The Markup. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: What brought you to The Markup?

Sisi Wei: When I first started talking with Nabiha Syed, The Markup’s CEO, I already had a deep respect for both her and the organization, but I was also extremely happy in my role at OpenNews and had never been interested in being editor-in-chief anywhere. The more we talked, however, the more The Markup felt like a perfect fit for all the different types of experiences I’ve had through my career. Not only that, it was also an incredible opportunity for me to make a real impact and bring a really rare skill set into a leadership role within the industry. That’s when I started seriously considering the job and started asking a million questions to learn more.

Tameez: Why The Markup? Why now?

Wei: I mentioned before that my skill set is rare for an editor-in-chief. I’ve spent years doing the investigative reporting, data analysis, writing, editing, and coding work that are at The Markup’s core. I’ve banged my head against coding problems that seemed impossible to solve, just as I’ve investigated the code that websites are built on and detected wrongdoing. I’ve designed and edited visual journalism that communicates in seconds the emotional gravity of an issue, just as I’ve created tools that democratize data that every single member of the public should have a right to see and use. I’ve also benefited from an incredible amount of time and space to look at journalism from a broad perspective, and to think critically about how newsrooms should operate, and how we can best serve and listen to our communities. Marrying all of those experiences together just made sense.

As for why now — The Markup’s tech accountability coverage addresses one of the most important and urgent issues of our time. Technology is so ubiquitous in so many people’s lives, and the need to dig deep into what the technology we use everyday is actually doing, often without our actual consent, is more important than ever. What we often don’t think about is how tech accountability is also so many other types of coverage. It’s labor coverage, climate change coverage, healthcare coverage, criminal justice coverage, immigration coverage — I could go on and on, because every single system in our society uses technology and I guarantee you, uses it in a way that causes harm. And you can bet we’re going to unearth it.

Tameez: How has your work at OpenNews informed how you’ll approach your role at The Markup?

Wei: At OpenNews, I’ve learned an incredible amount about building strong relationships and the different ways of creating change — whether it’s creating alternative ways to support journalists who have been laid off, or by using our collective voices to demand policy changes from the industry, or by creating communities where journalists can directly share knowledge with each other and work collaboratively.

As I approach my role at The Markup, I’m excited to use that knowledge to help The Markup build community, work collaboratively with other newsrooms and partners, and think deeply on how our reporting can hold institutions accountable in multiple ways.

Tameez: What are your plans for coverage? What types of stories would you like The Markup to do more of? How do you think about coverage in terms of momentum of Big Tech regulation?

Wei: When it comes to coverage, especially for an investigative nonprofit that serves the public, it’s our job to focus on where we have reason to believe there is the most harm, who is impacted, and the type of real-world impact we can have if we expose it — and to focus our time and resources on covering those stories and building public resources and tools to address them.

When it comes to covering Big Tech, we also can’t limit ourselves to a small handful of powerful companies. It should also include, as The Markup’s coverage does already, the invisible tech companies with forgettable names that are selling data about where our children are, the algorithms that are becoming our literal bosses, and the app with glitches that ICE uses to track immigrants.

Also, while I absolutely have my own thoughts on what I think is high-impact coverage, by and large, the best pieces of impactful journalism don’t come from editors. They come from the reporters. As I work to shape and hone our coverage, I won’t be making any decisions without hearing from our reporters first about what they think is essential coverage right now.

Tameez: What do you think The Markup has done well so far? Where do you see room for improvement?

Wei: The Markup is an incredibly important and unique organization, because it understands in its DNA that to hold powerful institutions to account, especially when it comes to the technology they produce, we as journalists need to have tech expertise of our own. Then, not only do the journalists at The Markup show their work, they also create tools like Blacklight andAmazon Brand Detector, that literally take the hidden layers of technology that we all run into by using the internet, and make it plain and obvious for anyone to see. The team of incredible journalists there are also some of the scrappiest, most detailed, and thorough reporters working in the field today.

Looking toward the future, it’s our job to build on that fantastic foundation. The Markup has proven that it can tell critical stories about technology, especially for lawmakers and regulators. I’m excited to add a bigger focus on the human impact of technology. In our investigations, in addition to what regulators can do, I want to invest an equal effort in telling the public how what’s happening impacts them and what they can do about it. On top of that, I’m excited to work collaboratively with other newsrooms and partners to make sure The Markup’s incredible journalism reaches audiences where they are, and to grow genuine and deep relationships with the communities that are being harmed by the wrongdoing we report on, and make sure that our work is truly serving and reaching them.

Tameez: How do you plan on bringing your work and learnings from the DEI Coalition Slack into The Markup?

Wei: The DEI Coalition Slack is dedicated to sharing knowledge and taking concrete action in service of a more anti-racist, equitable, and just journalism industry. These are values from both the Slack community and the OpenNews community that I will be bringing with me to The Markup and to every decision I make.

One of the key elements to creating a culture of belonging is trust, which also takes time to build and nurture. To ensure that we have a collaborative, psychologically safe, and equitable newsroom filled with a diversity of experiences and voices, the work and process is never complete. It can’t be, because The Markup and any other newsroom doesn’t operate in its own universe. We’re all affected by the world around us, and the way its systems and other people treat us. Until the world itself is an equitable place, I will never stop actively pursuing, engaging, and listening for better approaches to everything that we do — from both the team at the Markup and our colleagues across the industry.

Tameez: Julia Angwin has built The Markup to be a tech watchdog in the last few years. How do you think about her original vision in your planning? What will your working relationship be like with her?

Wei: I was at ProPublica when Julia and Jeff [Larson] left to start The Markup, and I still remember how brilliant and spot-on I thought their vision was. There was and still is an incredible need for an investigative journalism organization with data and coding chops dedicated to watching tech, and they built it. I still remember Julia, Jeff, Surya, and Lauren’s work on Machine Bias — it’s one of my hands-down, most favorite investigations, not only because it proved how biased the tech being used was, it also showed you the devastating impact it had on people’s lives. Needless to say, I think Julia’s vision is fantastic, and we’ll only be building on it — how can we reach communities that don’t read The Markup, but whose lives are affected by the harms we’re exposing? What information do those communities need to hold tech to account? What tools can we give the public, and how can The Markup become the leading place to get those superpowers?

Julia is The Markup’s founder and editor-at-large. She’s also worn so many different hats, from investigative reporter to editor to manager to founder of a startup, and more. Once I officially start my new role, we’ll talk in-depth and figure out what makes the most sense.

Tameez: What are you most excited about? What are some of the challenges you foresee?

Wei: I cannot wait to continue The Markup’s powerful focus on genuine impact, to start working more deeply with communities to hold powerful institutions and algorithms accountable, and to equip the public with the information and tools we all need to make change.

The challenges are also obvious. We’re about to hire, a lot, and fast, and we need to make sure we do it in a way that’s speedy but equitable, and doing it right is going to take up a significant amount of time, just from volume alone. It’s one of the reasons we’ve just started a brand-new jobs newsletter, for anyone who’s interested in working at The Markup and wants to be notified as soon as we post a new position. It’s extremely likely that we’ll be hiring editors, reporters, data journalists, journalist engineers, and more. We’ll be sharing the newsletter simultaneously to us figuring out all the details when I start, to help us make sure as many applicants as possible know about our jobs and are encouraged to apply.

POSTED     Aug. 2, 2022, 2:53 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The Washington Post launches a year in news à la Spotify Wrapped
“We initially built a ‘look-back’ experience but pivoted when we learned that our readers are more interested in insights that center on their reading ‘personality’ and content discovery rather than revisiting news from the past.”
How risky is it for journalists to cover protests?
Plus: Exploring why women leave the news industry, the effects of opinion labels, and susceptibility to disinformation.
Coming to a Hawaii library near you: Honolulu Civil Beat is hosting pop-up newsrooms around the state
“We learned that people have an interest if they can get to us.”