One way or another, Julia Angwin is determined to remake The Markup, the publication she co-founded and planned to launch this summer before being fired via email on Monday.
“I want this team and I want this mission, and I want to build this,” the acclaimed technology journalist said on the “Reliable Sources” podcast on Wednesday. “I don’t quite know the mechanics of how this works, but I can tell you my vision is exactly the same.”
Five of the website’s seven editorial staffers resigned on Tuesday after Angwin was fired. Other editorial and technical staffers remain at work.
Angwin said in Wednesday’s interview that she hopes Craig Newmark, The Markup’s biggest financial backer, “would choose to fund us in some other way, or to put us back in place at The Markup. Or maybe another funder comes forward. But I didn’t give up the best job in journalism to just give up on this dream.”
Later in the day on Wednesday, Newmark and the other funders of the site issued a statement saying that they are “taking steps” to “reassess our support” for the startup, in light of this week’s developments.
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The Markup’s remaining leaders said in response that “we respect their statement and their need to review this situation, and we will support them in any way. We are hard at work continuing to build The Markup, and believe deeply in this mission as do our funders.”
When Angwin said she left “the best job in journalism,” she was talking about her perch at the acclaimed nonprofit newsroom ProPublica. Angwin and Jeff Larson left their jobs there to create The Markup last year. They recruited Sue Gardner, a former executive at the Wikimedia Foundation and the CBC, and raised money — $20 million from Newmark and a few million from other philanthropists.
The venture – using data-driven journalism to investigate the impact of technology on society – was met with enthusiasm when it was announced last September. Angwin was the editor in chief; Larson was the managing editor; and Gardner was the executive director, running the business side.
But then “we started having conflict about the vision,” Angwin said on the podcast.
She said Gardner wanted The Markup to be “a cause, not a publication,” carrying articles with titles like “Facebook is a dumpster fire.”
But the startup had invoked the scientific method and promised to produce “evidence-based, data-driven journalism,” Angwin said. How much evidence, she asked aloud, would you need to prove that “Facebook is a dumpster fire?”
Angwin argued that investigative journalism is a more effective form of accountability than a spicy headline – a so-called “hot take.”
Disagreements piled up. Several months ago, Angwin recalled, Gardner “told me that I wasn’t suited to be an executive” and suggested a columnist role instead. Angwin felt she was being squeezed out. She refused to step down as editor in chief, and she wrote to Newmark on Monday seeking an intervention. She was fired by Gardner later in the day. Larson was named the new editor in chief.
Gardner disputed some of Angwin’s claims in a statement on Tuesday: “We said when The Markup was first announced that we intended to ‘hold the powerful to account, raise the cost of bad behavior, and spur reforams.’ That mission has not changed. Our goals, purpose, and focus have not shifted. Our reporting priorities haven’t changed, and won’t.”
Regarding Angwin’s ouster, Gardner said this was a “personnel matter about leadership and management.”
About that, Angwin said she has ample experience leading investigative teams, but recognized that becoming an editor in chief was a step up. “I knew I had things I needed to learn,” she said. “But there was never any attempt to guide me into that learning.”
In a blog post on Wednesday, Larson disputed her description of the situation. He said The Markup was supposed to launch in early 2019, but “by late 2018 it was clear that we had fallen far, far behind.” Larson said that “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.”
According to Angwin, however, she asked Gardner “to give me guidance and feedback so I can improve.”
One thing is clear, according to to all three: There was, as Larson put it, a “breakdown in trust between the three of us as co-founders.”
Larson said in his blog post that “our door is open” for the reporters who resigned on Tuesday. But they left in support of Angwin. One of them, Lauren Kirchner, tweeted, “Angwin is the reason I joined, and her ouster is the reason I am leaving.”
Angwin said on the podcast that “several” investigative projects are left in limbo. “What’s so tragic: What’s going to happen to that important work?” she asked.
She said that the outpouring of support since her firing is “moving and incredible… It gives me some hope that there is demand for this and that maybe I’ll be able to restart it somehow.”
Companies like Google and Facebook have become “bigger than any government,” and “they need oversight,” she said. “And this was going to be the organization that would try, just a small little bit, try, to do oversight,” by employing data journalists and other experts. “And I still want to do that. I don’t exactly know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to try.”