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Mayhem at The Markup: Staffers resign en masse at highly anticipated tech news outlet

Mayhem at The Markup: Staffers resign en masse at highly anticipated tech news outlet
[Photo: Mike Chai/Pexels]

Jeff Larson and Sue Gardner likely didn’t anticipate this blowback. The two media executives are at the helm of the Markup–a still-in-development investigative news publication that was slated to launch in July–along with ProPublica veteran Julia Angwin. Today, however, Angwin announced that she was being let go from her position as editor-in-chief, due to alleged differences with Gardner. Larson will be taking over as editor-in-chief. And now reporters are resigning.

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When it was first announced, the Markup was pitched as a publication that would look at technology and its underlying effects on society. With a $23 million cash infusion in part from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the team of around 20 journalists would sift through public records, analyze data, and then write deep reports about the tectonic changes happening before our very eyes. This followed closely with Angwin’s past reporting at ProPublica, a nonprofit news outlet that often publishes investigations on big companies like Facebook.

However, in a letter to Newmark on Monday, Angwin accused Gardner of refocusing the outlet’s mission. “Executive Director Sue Gardner is now seeking to change the mission of the newsroom to one based on advocacy against the tech companies,” she wrote.

She went on to say that Gardner began to ask candidates during interviews for their “take” on tech companies, and then reportedly rated them based on their antipathy toward these businesses. “This approach is a direct repudiation of our promise to . . . you and our other donors,” she wrote.

Gardner disputed this characterization to the New York Times. Employees, however, feel blindsided. Many found out about the decision to oust Angwin only yesterday, but still don’t quite understand what happened. Some described Larson’s and Gardner’s complaints about Angwin as petty grievances. While there may have been some brewing disagreements at the top for some time, employees say they were generally quite happy with the atmosphere of the newsroom. They were working on stories, attending meetings, and collaborating cohesively, sources tell me.

The move to let Angwin go, one source says, looked very much like a “power grab.” Angwin was one of the founders of this organization, and the other two, for an unknown reason, weren’t on the same page as her. The two allegedly complained about Angwin’s management style, yet those managed by her disagreed. “It’s Jeff and Sue versus Julia,” one source says.

Now multiple staffers are leaving the Markup. So far, five editors and writers have taken to Twitter to announce their departure from the publication in light of Angwin’s ouster. For each individual Twitter announcement, Angwin has tweeted in response that they “can’t afford to do this. This is heartbreaking.”

In a Twitter thread, Larson announced his new position as editor-in-chief, but didn’t discuss the specifics of Angwin’s departure. “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,” he wrote.

I reached out to Newmark, Larson, and Angwin for comment. The Markup‘s communications team provided me with a statement from Gardner, which I’ve pasted below. It does not discuss the employee departures. Gardner has a past history of management missteps, including being a target of Gawker’s Valleywag blog back in 2008.

For now, we wait to see if more employees depart or if Newmark steps in to right the ship.

Here is the statement from Sue Gardner:

The Markup has appointed cofounder and managing editor Jeff Larson as editor-in-chief. Jeff will be taking over the role from cofounder Julia Angwin. Jeff is a highly skilled technologist and widely recognized pioneer in data-driven investigative journalism. He has won multiple awards for his work, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and was part of the team of journalists from the New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica that reported on the Snowden documents.

We are not going to speak to the specific details of Julia’s departure. As a matter of practice, we don’t talk about internal HR issues. This was, simply, a personnel matter about leadership and management, and while we have worked for months together to try to find another role for Julia that is commensurate with her experience and stature as a journalist, unfortunately, Ms. Angwin refused to consider any title or role other than editor-in-chief. We appreciate her role in cofounding and helping to guide the initial phase of the Markup‘s development.

The Markup was founded in 2018 to produce data-driven, rigorously fact-checked reporting about the effects of technology on society. 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 reforms.” That mission has not changed. Our goals, purpose, and focus have not shifted. Our reporting priorities haven’t changed, and won’t. Any assertion that we have shifted our mission is simply not the case. The mission of the Markup was never solely one person’s vision–it is a vision that all three cofounders and a growing staff share.

We are looking forward to launching later in 2019.

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