For the past year, the investigative journalist Julia Angwin has been busy building The Markup, a nonprofit news site dedicated to scrutinizing technology and its effects on society.
The Markup raised more than $23 million in funding, a testament to the reputation that Ms. Angwin, the site’s editor in chief, and another of its founders, Jeff Larson, had established through their work at ProPublica, which they left last year. But on Monday evening, Ms. Angwin was fired from The Markup via email, just months before the site’s planned July start date. On Tuesday, five of the site’s seven editorial staff members resigned, citing her dismissal as the reason.
Ms. Angwin said in a letter to Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder and the site’s biggest donor, that she was being pushed out by Sue Gardner, The Markup’s third founder, who is also its executive director and was the head of the Wikimedia Foundation until 2014.
Ms. Gardner wanted to change the site’s mission to “one based on advocacy against the tech companies” instead of “producing meaningful data-centered journalism about the impact of technology on society,” Ms. Angwin wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times.
Ms. Gardner disputed that characterization.
“There is no change in the mission or purpose of The Markup,” she said in response to questions from The Times. “We are, pure and simple, a news outlet. We always have been and always will be. Our goals and purpose haven’t changed.”
Ms. Gardner said Tuesday afternoon that the site had issues with Ms. Angwin involving “leadership, management and willingness to accept feedback and training to grow as an editor in chief.”
Mr. Larson, who will succeed Ms. Angwin, added that The Markup had hoped to have almost 36 reporters in place and begin publishing by early 2019. He said it wanted to see more progress in areas like recruitment, a process that would allow journalists to pitch story ideas to the site and the amount of publishable work ready to go on the site when it went live.
Asked to respond to the criticism from Ms. Gardner and Mr. Larson, Ms. Angwin pointed to the exodus of the editorial staff after her dismissal. “I feel like the support of the newsroom for my leadership is all the testimony that anyone could ever ask for as a leader,” she said.
Ms. Angwin’s credentials and vision for the site helped attract interest from journalists, other media outlets and donors, including a $20 million gift from Mr. Newmark.
“I’m devastated to be forced out of the organization I conceived to pursue rigorous, evidence-based tech accountability journalism,” Ms. Angwin said in an emailed statement. “I will continue to pursue that mission and hope to find other ways to help build this field.”
While Ms. Angwin was at ProPublica, the site became known as “big tech’s scariest watchdog.” Before joining ProPublica, she worked at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team and was also part of a group that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of corporate scandals. She has also written two books, one of which was about privacy.
At ProPublica, Ms. Angwin’s team demonstrated how Facebook’s ad tools could be used to illegally discriminate against people of certain races, investigated racial bias in criminal sentencing software and examined how African-Americans were overcharged for car insurance. Mr. Larson was generally her partner on investigations, she said on a podcast last fall, where “he’s sort of the programmer, I’m the journalist, although I think we’re both a little of both.”
The circumstances surrounding Ms. Angwin’s departure remain a point of contention. Ms. Gardner said the site had started talking with Ms. Angwin in December about creating a new role for her that was not of editor in chief, but that would allow her to “remain the public face of the institution.” She added that Ms. Angwin was not open to other jobs at The Markup.
Mr. Larson said, “The Markup attempted to meet with Ms. Angwin in person, and discussions about her role had been ongoing for some time.” He added, “This was not abrupt.”
Ms. Angwin said she had never been offered other roles or discussed other jobs within the roughly 15-person organization.
The seven members of editorial staff sent the management and Mr. Newmark a letter supporting Ms. Angwin on Monday, saying, “We joined on to The Markup because we believe in Julia Angwin’s work.” The letter was posted on Twitter from an account named “The Real Team Markup” on Tuesday.
Mr. Newmark did not respond to requests for comment. A journalist for The Guardian said on Twitter that Mr. Newmark had responded, “I can’t ethically comment right now” when she asked him about The Markup at an event on Tuesday.
In her letter to Mr. Newmark, which sought his intervention, Ms. Angwin said Ms. Gardner wanted The Markup to be a “cause” rather than a “publication.”
She also said Ms. Gardner had ranked reporters in job interviews according to how negative they were regarding tech companies, viewing that as a favorable trait, and had urged Ms. Angwin to run headlines on future stories like “Facebook is a dumpster fire.” Ms. Angwin said her objections had led Ms. Gardner to seek her removal as editor in chief.
Ms. Gardner said in an email that although she regularly asked candidates for their perspectives about technology, in part to gauge how informed they were, “the assertion that more negative takes were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is untrue.” She also said she had not urged headlines like the one Ms. Angwin cited.
“Internally at The Markup we’ve had many conversations about tone and style, which have included kicking around questions about whether we would ever use colloquial language like ‘dumpster fire,’” Ms. Gardner said. “This was a hypothetical raised as a question, not an imperative.”
On March 29, according to Ms. Angwin’s letter, Ms. Gardner asked Ms. Angwin to step down to become a columnist and write opinion articles. She declined, citing her responsibility to pursue the vision she shared with donors and the employees she had hired.
“Julia Angwin is a groundbreaking investigative journalist with a powerful vision and the highest ethics and integrity,” Jesse Eisinger, senior reporter and editor at ProPublica, said in an email, noting that he and Ms. Angwin were friends. “Sue Gardner has little to no investigative experience. To fire Angwin is to sign The Markup’s death warrant.”
Ms. Angwin said in her letter that while Ms. Gardner had promised her an employment contract with job protections for her position as editor in chief, Ms. Gardner had never signed such a contract. The company does not yet have a formal governing board that would be required to weigh in on major management changes.
Mr. Larson was the site’s managing editor and had previously worked at The Nation. He is a data journalist who has won a Livingston Award and was on a team that won a Peabody Award. It was a message from Mr. Larson sent on Monday night that officially told staffers the news about Ms. Angwin. It began: “Hey all. I am writing to tell you that Julia Angwin is no longer with The Markup.”
Orignially published in NYT.