On Monday night, The Markup, a nonprofit journalism startup focused on data-driven investigations of the effects of technology on society, fired its editor in chief and co-founder Julia Angwin. Jeff Larson, The Markup’s managing editor, has been named the outlet’s new editor in chief. At least four editorial staffers have resigned, after Angwin’s seven-person team wrote a letter supporting her.
Angwin believes that her ouster stemmed from disagreements among the three co-founders—Angwin, Larson, and Sue Gardner—over how to best balance data-driven journalism and political advocacy. (Larson and Gardner contest this.) According to Angwin, Gardner, the former head of the Wikimedia Foundation, created a spreadsheet ranking candidates for reporter positions according to their views toward technology companies. On March 29, Angwin says, Gardner asked her to step down as editor in chief and instead become a columnist, which Angwin refused. On the evening of April 22, Gardner emailed Angwin and told her that she was fired.
“I’m devastated to be forced out of the organization I conceived to pursue rigorous evidence-based tech accountability journalism,” Angwin, a former investigative reporter at ProPublica, said in a statement. “I will continue to pursue that mission and hope to find other ways to build this field.”
The New York Times was first to report news of the editorial shakeup. Larson told the Times that Angwin’s removal had been in the works for a while.
“The Markup attempted to meet with Ms. Angwin in person, and discussions about her role had been ongoing for some time,” he told the paper in an email. “This was not abrupt.” He later tweeted, “As I said when we launched, as a news outlet The Markup intends to hold the powerful to account, raise the cost of bad behavior, and spur reforms. That hasn’t changed, and we are excited to move forward on this path.”
Before she was fired, Angwin wrote a letter to funder Craig Newmark, who donated $20 million to The Markup, expressing concern that Gardner was more interested in advocacy than journalism.
“As Editor-in-Chief, I founded The Markup last year with the vision of producing meaningful data-centered journalism about the impact of technology on society,” Angwin wrote in the letter. “All of the materials that we provided to you and other donors spoke of our focus on investigative reporting and data-driven journalism. … Executive director Sue Gardner is now seeking to change the mission of the newsroom to one based on advocacy against the tech companies. She argues that The Markup needs to be a ‘cause’ rather than a ‘publication.’” (Diclosure: Newmark is a funder of CJR and a member of its Board of Overseers.)
In the letter to Newmark, Angwin accused Gardner of prioritizing animus toward major technology companies over journalism, and alluded to the spreadsheet she described to CJR.
“During job interviews with reporter candidates, she asks them for their ‘take’ on tech companies and rates their candidacy based on how negative she thinks they are (more negative = good, to her),” Angwin wrote. “She has removed any reference to investigative journalism from our Editorial Value Proposition. She has urged me to run articles with headlines such as ‘Facebook is a dumpster fire.’”
Gardner, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in a statement to the Times that The Markup was committed to journalism.
“There is no change in the mission or purpose of The Markup,” she told the paper. “We are, pure and simple, a news outlet, we always have been and always will be. Our goals and purpose haven’t changed.”
Today, The Markup’s editorial staff released a statement in support of Angwin.
“We, the members of the editorial staff of The Markup wish to express our complete confidence and support for Julia Angwin as our Editor-in-Chief,” the statement reads. “During our time here, we have benefited from her professional management style, and her effectiveness as both a manager and an editor. We are all inspired by her passion for investigative journalism, her instincts for news and her strong ethical and moral compass.”
The statement — which was signed by reporters Madeleine Varner, Xavier Harding, Jon Keegan, Lauren Kirchner, Surya Mattu, Leon Yin, and Adrianne Jeffries — was published on Twitter by an account calling itself “The Real Markup in Exile.” The same account later tweeted screenshots of Angwin’s letter to Newmark. Keegan, Kirchner, Mattu, Jeffries, and Yin have posted about their resignations on Twitter. Other supporters of Angwin published an open letter on Medium.
Read Julia Angwin’s full letter to Craig Newmark:
I am writing you to urge you to review and intervene in the situation unfolding at The Markup.
As Editor-in-Chief, I founded The Markup last year with the vision of producing meaningful data-centered journalism about the impact of technology on society. All of the materials that we provided to you and other donors spoke of our focus on investigative reporting and data-driven journalism. On that promise, and on the reputation of my journalism at ProPublica and The Wall Street Journal, you kindly pledged $20 million toward our project.
Executive director Sue Gardner is now seeking to change the mission of the newsroom to one based on advocacy against the tech companies. She argues that The Markup needs to be a “cause” rather than a “publication.” During job interviews with reporter candidates, she asks them for their “take” on tech companies and rates their candidacy based on how negative she thinks they are (more negative = good, to her). She has removed any reference to investigative journalism from our Editorial Value Proposition. She has urged me to run articles with headlines such as “Facebook is a dumpster fire.”
This approach is a direct repudiation of our promise to our you and our other donors. I have repeatedly objected to these moves over the past months, and she is now retaliating against me by attempting to remove me from my position as Editor-in-Chief. On March 29, 2019 Gardner asked me to step down from my position as Editor-in-Chief and become a columnist, writing opinion articles. I refused because I have a responsibility to execute on the vision that I promised to donors and to the employees I have hired.
The advocacy approach that Gardner is urging is the opposite of our evidence- and data-driven approach that we have promised our donors and journalists and leaves The Markup vulnerable to legal challenges. It is also a reneging of a promise Gardner made to me when I recruited her to join The Markup last year. I was already meeting with donors and journalists when I recruited her to join. Once she joined, she gave me an ultimatum that she needed to be CEO in order to stay on. It was hard for me to give up control of a project I had spent years conceiving, and is founded on decades of my experience as a journalism, but she promised I would have an employment contract with job protections for my position as Editor-in-Chief. She has not signed such a contract, and she is now actively seeking to remove me as Editor-in-Chief.
As our biggest donor, I wanted to alert you to the situation before I go public further. I am planning to speak to the board of our fiscal sponsor, NEO Philanthropy, and ask them to review these actions. I am deeply thankful for your support of The Markup, and I am deeply saddened I feel the need to involve you in this matter.
Read the full statement from “The Real Markup in Exile”:
We, the members of the editorial staff of The Markup wish to express our complete confidence and support for Julia Angwin as our Editor-in-Chief.
During our time here, we have benefited from her professional management style, and her effectiveness as both a manager and an editor. We are all inspired by her passion for investigative journalism, her instincts for news and her strong ethical and moral compass.
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.
We are all working incredibly hard preparing for a July launch, and reporting is underway with sources depending on the word of The Markup’s journalists. Our mission is clear to us all in the newsroom, we are passionate about our stories and reporting and we look forward to Julia leading us through a successful launch and beyond.
This post has been updated with information about additional resignations.Peter Sterne is a senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the managing editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker. He was previously a media reporter at Politico.