Ousted founder Julia Angwin returns to The Markup

The yet-to-launch tech journalism site The Markup has had a bumpy 2019 — co-founder and editor-in-chief Julia Angwin was fired, prompting the departure of the majority of the editorial staff. Soon after, the The Markup’s other founders (whose disputes with Angwin apparently led to her ouster) left the company themselves.

Now things may be back on track, with Angwin returning to the EIC role, and the six staffers who’d quit in protest returning as well.

In fact, a New York Times story about Angwin’s reinstatement suggests that there’s been a surprising amount of continuity behind the scenes, with The Markup continuing to pay Angwin and her staff while they continued to work on articles and meet in Angwin’s living room.

In addition to announcing Angwin’s return, The Markup says it has hired former BuzzFeed vice president and associate general counsel Nabiha Syed to serve as president, along with Evelyn Larrubia, who will be come managing editor for investigations.

“Technology is shaping our world faster than most people can keep up, before we can digest the implications of any of it,” Angwin said in the announcement. “We believe our data-driven approach to tech accountability journalism will bring facts to this emotional debate. And I can’t think of two more accomplished leaders in their fields than Nabiha and Evelyn to join me in the venture.”

The plan is for Angwin and Syed to report to a not-yet-appointed independent board of directors, and for the site to start publishing by the end of 2019.

When The Markup made a splash with its kickoff last year, it wasn’t just for the involvement of Angwin (a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from The Wall Street Journal and Pro Publica), but also because its funding included a $20 million donation from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

The recent controversy prompted the site’s backers to declare that it had become necessary to reassess our support,” but today’s announcement closes with this note: “The Markup remains supported by a coalition of major foundations, including Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust, the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative, and the Open Society Foundations.”

The Markup faces staff exodus and funder scrutiny following ouster of Julia Angwin

The Markup appears to be facing a staff revolt — and its financial backers may be reconsidering their support — following the firing of Editor in Chief Julia Angwin.

When the site was announced last fall, it was backed by $20 million from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, with additional funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The goal was to do data-driven journalism about the impact of technology on society.

Angwin and her co-founder Jeff Larson seemed particularly well-suited for the job — both of them are award-winning journalists who worked together at ProPublica, where they did impactful reporting around topics like Facebook’s ad practices.

However, Angwin was fired on Monday, a move she blamed in interviews on executive director Sue Gardner’s plan to turn the site into “a cause, not a publication,” with headlines like “Facebook is a dumpster fire.”

This, Angwin said, was at odds with her own dedication to “evidence-based, data-driven journalism.”

Larson, who’s now become editor-in-chief, offered a different account on Medium, where he said work had fallen “far, far behind” by the end of 2018: “Hiring was slow. Recruitment was slow. Even as of this month, we didn’t have stories banked. We didn’t have editorial processes in place to accept and develop pieces.”

He said that he and Angwin were both asked to take management classes, but she refused. (Angwin acknowledged that she may have had things to learn about being editor-in-chief, but she noted that she’s led investigative teams in the past, and she said, “There was never any attempt to guide me into that learning.”)

Larson also alluded to other issues that led to “a breakdown in trust between the three of us as co-founders.” He said there were attempts to find other roles for Angwin, but she “refused to discuss any role other than Editor in Chief, and would not consider any other configuration. So unfortunately we made the decision to remove her from that role.”

The editorial team has sided with  Angwin, with all of them posting a statement supporting her and praising her “effectiveness as a manager and an editor.” Five of the seven editorial team members also resigned in protest.

As a result of all the controversy, Newmark and the other funders of The Markup have issued a statement of their own, saying that while they’re still “committed to the mission of The Markup,” they’ve also decided “it is necessary to reassess our support and we are taking steps to do so.”