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What the hell happened at The Markup? Part 2: Co-founders Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson respond to Julia Angwin’s Recode Decode interview

Gardner said Angwin “is going out and just making up an entirely whole-cloth kind of theme around this advocacy thing.”

Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson, co-founders of The Markup.
Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson, co-founders of The Markup.
Courtesy of The Markup

The leaders of data-driven media startup The Markup are engaged in a public battle — and they haven’t published a single article yet.

The super-quick recap: On Monday, The Markup’s editor-in-chief Julia Angwin was fired by her co-founders Jeff Larson and Sue Gardner. On Tuesday, five of the site’s seven reporters publicly resigned. On Wednesday, Larson tried to defend the firing in a Medium post. And also on Wednesday, the site’s largest financial backer — Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s philanthropic organization — joined other funders in issuing a written statement that they would “reassess our support.”

(Recode reached out to Newmark yesterday to see if he had any additional comments, but did not hear back before the publication of this piece.)

That brings us to yesterday, Thursday. In Washington, DC, Angwin joined Recode’s Kara Swisher onstage for a live taping of her podcast, Recode Decode, in which she reiterated what she had told other outlets: That the firing was a kind of “coup” that stemmed from disagreements about The Markup’s identity and whether it “should be a cause, not a publication”; according to Angwin, Gardner wanted to aim a critical light on Big Tech, while she wanted to stick “with the facts,” not pursue an agenda.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, Gardner and Larson called us seeking to dispute what Angwin had said.

“I’m kind of amazed by what she’s doing,” Gardner told Recode. “The idea that she is going out and just making up an entirely whole-cloth kind of theme around this advocacy thing, I’m kind of baffled by it. I’m not loving stories that frame this as ‘she said, she said’ or whatever.”

The co-founders have said many of their disagreements surfaced at private dinners and meetings, so here’s some more “she said, she said.” To follow the twists and turns, it’s best to first listen to or read Swisher’s full interview with Angwin. Below, you’ll find Gardner and Larson’s reactions to some of what Angwin said.

Gardner said that changing the mission of The Markup into one of advocacy “was never contemplated. She totally made it up.” Asked about this after the podcast interview, Angwin wrote in an email to Recode that “as we evolved, she [Gardner] started removing references to our scientific approach of data journalism, removing references to investigative work for various brand positioning documents.”

Gardner said disagreements among the three co-founders were not ideological but rather routine debates about things like how long the stories on the site should be and what tone they should have.

“It would have been ridiculous of me to do some kind of ludicrous pivot into advocacy,” she said. “It’s not what I wanted to do. My background is in journalism. Jeff’s background is in journalism. Julia’s is in journalism.”

How, then, to account for the five other employees who resigned this week? Gardner said that when they quit, she believes they had only heard Angwin’s side of the story: “If I was a journalist and the editor-in-chief told me the boss was radically changing the organization,” Gardner said, she would have quit, too.

Update: Former Markup writer Adrianne Jeffries, who was one of the five reporters to resign, said Friday that the belief that the writers who quit had heard only Angwin’s side was incorrect.

On the podcast, Angwin told Swisher that Gardner and Larson had urged her in March to step down as editor-in-chief and become a columnist instead. Gardner initially didn’t remember such a proposal, but said the three co-founders had had multiple conversations “to suss out what was most suited” for Angwin and Larson, who had previously worked together on award-winning data journalism for ProPublica.

However, Larson recalled the same dinner in March, at which he and Gardner — already disappointed with the progress of The Markup’s development — talked to Angwin about journalists like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, now respectively the editor-at-large and senior correspondent at our sister site The point, Larson said, was that “people who were there at the beginning of news organizations” could have active, public roles without the formal editor-in-chief title.

“I remember saying, ‘No one is asking you to be a columnist. You are an investigative reporter,’” Larson said.

In her email to Recode, Angwin said the issue was that “no job offer was given or job description provided, so I don’t really know what job they were proposing that I take.”

What Angwin is now, post-firing, is still up the air, but she told Swisher she wants to continue reporting.

“If I could do this somehow, somewhere, that’s what I would do,” Angwin said. “I want to build this field. This is too important an issue for there not to be a team like this doing this type of work. It doesn’t have to be at The Markup. It can be somewhere, but I’m going to try to figure out a way to make it happen.”

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