Here’s what happened inside The Markup

April 25, 2019

The Markup was one of the most highly anticipated media startups in recent memory. Julia Angwin, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, teamed up with her ProPublica writing partner, data journalist Jeff Larson, and brought in Sue Gardner, the former head of Wikimedia and a number of other well-regarded non-profit projects. The team raised $20 million from the Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to fund a data-driven journalistic platform focused on covering the tech giants.

Now, all of that hangs by a thread. Angwin was fired by her co-founders on Monday. Five of the company’s seven editorial staff quit in protest, and more than 145 journalists and researchers signed a letter supporting her.

In interviews over the past few days and in a letter to Newmark she posted on social media, Angwin accused Gardner of trying to shift The Markup’s data-focused approach to one of anti-tech advocacy, and asked Newmark to step in. On Wednesday, he and the rest of The Markup’s fundersincluding the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundationdid exactly that, saying they were going to “reassess” their support. Whether that means pulling their funding or forcing the company to re-hire Angwin remains unknown. Newmark (who is a funder of CJR and is on its board of overseers) said on Twitter he was “taking this very seriously.”

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The drama has riveted the media world. But the events that led to Angwin’s firing remain murky. How were the inevitable tensions of a startup allowed to explode so dramatically? How could Angwin be pushed out of a company that was her idea in the first place? Why didn’t others intervene sooner? Larson, for his part, wrote a post on Medium blaming the blow-up on Angwin’s failure to grow the company as quickly as the co-founders had planned.

In her first in-depth interview, Sue Gardner, the company’s chief executive, told CJR how her relationship with Angwin began to deteriorate not long after Gardner joined Angwin and Larson as a co-founder last February. (Gardner kept written notes of meetings and of the breakdown in the relationship from the time she joined the company, and she shared those notes with CJR.)

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Gardner felt that, as a senior executive, Angwin should be willing to take part in team-building exercises by submitting to a Myers-Briggs personality test, and should be more enthusiastic about attending meetings. She was alarmed that Angwin did not agree to formal performance assessments for herself and her team (Angwin says she never refused to do performance reviews). Gardner says she found such behavior “unnerving coming from someone in an executive position” and that she believes Angwin wanted an adversarial relationship between editorial staff and management.

Gardner says she offered Angwin books and blog posts about what she considered effective management, and offered to get Angwin a coach to further align her with Gardner’s vision of how a company should be run. Larson said in an interview that he did read the books and took more than a dozen coaching sessions. Both he and Gardner say that Angwin did not follow up on the suggestions (Angwin says she read several of the books Gardner recommended, and also started corresponding with a coach in December).

Gardner also wanted Angwin to stop going on so many trips to conferences, which she felt got in the way of more pressing work. But Angwin continued to travel, and was out of the office for almost a month out of the first year of the company’s existence. Angwin told CJR she believed that “evangelism” about The Markup was a key part of her role.

Angwin acknowledged to CJR that “meetings are not my favorite thing.” And she admitted that she had room for improvement as a manager or executive of a company. “I’m not saying I was perfect by any means.” But she said she was “enthusiastic” about trying to improve, and said Gardner never gave her any kind of constructive feedback beyond a list of her failures.

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Such disputes—far from unprecedented between investigative reporters, who tend to value independence and objectivity over the tenets of management, and the executives who must work with them—spilled over into public view when Angwin accused Gardner of trying to push The Markup to actively advocate against tech companies.

Angwin, for instance, has referred in the past week to a spreadsheet that ranked potential employees on how critical they were of technology companies. Angwin has portrayed it as proof of Gardner’s attempts to foment an anti-tech stance. Gardner, though, says the spreadsheet (which she shared with CJR) ranked potential hires on a wide range of criteria, including their work history and experience, and that the idea was not to pick people who were adversarial, but only to assess how the candidates felt about the industry.

“A lot of tech reporting is kind of puffery,” she says. “It’s rewriting press releases and uncritically repeating things tech companies say. Good journalism doesn’t uncritically accept anything; it is skeptical. So that’s why I was assessing that.” She says another accusation made by Angwin in her letter to Craig Newmark, that Gardner wanted to put a headline on a story about how “Facebook is a dumpster fire,” was part of a broader discussion about the virtues of being direct in headlines instead of beating around the bush.

Angwin told CJR she didn’t know “where we were going to land on this advocacy or neutrality question, maybe we could have reached a compromise. But the fact is she was pushing really hard for stuff that I was feeling uncomfortable with.”

Gardner says her relationship with Angwinand Angwin’s relationship with Larson—eventually deteriorated to the point that day-long meetings were spent in arguments about things Angwin didn’t want to do, and missed deadlines. By December, Gardner says Angwin was supposed to have hired seven employees, but had hired only three. “The relationship between Julia and I was deteriorating, and so was the relationship between Julia and Jeff,” Gardner says, something Larson also confirmed to CJR.

“We were falling behind schedule,” says Gardner. “In a startup there are lots of non-editorial responsibilities that an editor in chief needs to play a role in, like helping shape decisions related to design, technology infrastructure, distribution, revenue model, and content licensing. A lot of that, Julia wasn’t interested in, and was delegating to Jeff.” Gardner felt that constituted picking the parts of her job that she enjoyed, and leaving the rest.

In January, Gardner’s notes show that Angwin asked that the CEO only communicate with her via email. In her letter to Newmark, she suggested that she tried to have an employment contract drawn up, but that Gardner blocked those attempts. Gardner, however, says she offered to give Angwin a contract, as opposed to an ‘at will’ arrangement, in which a company has no obligations to an employee (all of the other staff at The Markup were also “at will” employees) and even offered to pay for a lawyer to help negotiate it, but says Angwin didn’t pursue it until near the end of the relationship. Angwin says she started working on it in January but she and Gardner disagreed about her job description so that delayed the process.

When a proposed contract did appear, Gardner says Angwin asked for three years’ salary in the event of her dismissal for any reason, which Gardner felt “was ludicrous.” Gardner says she and Larson tried to convince Angwin to accept a role other than editor-in-chief, the way other startup co-founders like Ezra Klein of Vox and Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept did, but that Angwin refused to consider it.

Angwin says she still doesn’t know why she was fired, only that Gardner sent her an email saying she had “lost confidence in your ability to serve as Editor in Chief,” and that the Markup CEO “never talked about ways I could improve.” She has also said in interviews with others that the fact that five of the seven editorial staff quit in solidarity with her “is evidence that I couldn’t have been that bad a manager.”

Jon Keegan, one of the Markup journalists who quit, told CJR he wanted to “push back against any suggestion that Julia had lobbied us in some way” to quit with her. “When we got word this was happening, we rallied to Julia’s side on our own without any hesitation,” he said. “We were totally behind her leadership, and found the description of her failings as EIC completely inaccurate. Jeff’s description did not jibe with our experience.”

Another former staffer who didn’t want to be named said: “Julia is kind of a natural leader. In my experience she was more than willing to reconsider her beliefs — she was decisive, but also really interested in other people’s opinions. For me personally, she was very available, she acted like a mentor, and had great reporting advice. I respect her immensely. The idea that she would be bad at something or miss deadlines is very surprising to me.”

As for what happens now, Gardner and Larson say they are doing their best to continue building The Markup and have a number of potential hires in the works. Angwin, meanwhile, says she is open to possibly starting a new venture, or finding some way to put The Markup back together. “I want to save my team and the work we were doing,” she told CJR. “I gave up the best job in journalism to take on a dream of mine. It didn’t have to be this way. I’m devastated.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story has been updated to reflect additional information from Angwin regarding some of these events

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.