Rocky Start: Unpacking the Drama at Craig Newmark’s Tech Watchdog, The Markup

Trofimov Pavel/shutterstock

Trofimov Pavel/shutterstock

On May 24th, Craigslist founder and philanthropist Craig Newmark announced the departure of Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson, two of the founders of The Markup, the online publication he seeded with $20 million last year. The news, which came a month after The Markup’s leadership pushed out editor-in-chief Julia Angwin over what she described as “editorial differences” with Gardner, is the latest chapter in what some commentators are calling a cautionary tale for donors looking to bankroll new nonprofit journalism outlets.

It all started innocuously enough. Newmark put up the $20 million to launch The Markup with the goal of scrutinizing the technology industry and its effects on society at large. While doing so, he expressed deep concern over technology’s unchecked dominion over society.

“The tools of the tech industry’s platforms are now a big part of our lives and a big part of the way we govern ourselves—our politics—and it has to be done just right,” Newmark told us at the time. “Technology also has unexpected and unpredictable effects on our lives, and we have to understand that, good and bad. Previously, we didn’t quite get how big the effect would be, what the effect would be. Now, we do,” he said. “People with goodwill who have the resources should do what we can to make things better for everyone.”

The move fit neatly into Newmark’s civic-oriented philanthropic brand, which includes gifts earmarked for improving democracy, combating fake news, and reviving a journalism field that he (unwittingly) helped to dismantle via Craigslist. Zooming out beyond the journalism space, his support for The Markup also adheres to the growing “tech regret” movement, in which some techies, having fundamentally altered society, seek to limit the damage through philanthropy. The Markup also raised $3 million from other donors.

After The Markup leadership forced out Angwin in April, a majority of The Markup’s editorial team quit in protest. Newmark and other donors tweeted a joint statement saying they were “taking steps” to reassess their support for the publication. “I am taking this very seriously,” he said.

Disagreements Over Editorial Direction

When she departed in April, Angwin said that Gardner wanted to alter the site’s mission to something overtly antagonistic toward the tech industry, rather than journalistically rigorous. “Gardner is now seeking to change the mission of the newsroom to one based on advocacy against the tech companies,” Angwin said. “She argues that The Markup needs to be a ‘cause’ rather than a ‘publication.’” Ms. Gardner disputed that characterization.

Angwin 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 Angwin to run headlines like “Facebook is a dumpster fire.” Angwin said her objections had led Gardner to seek her removal as editor in chief.

In response, Gardner, the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said, “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,’” Gardner said. “That mission has not changed.” Gardner characterized Angwin's departure as “simply a personnel matter.”

In late April, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published a spreadsheet in which Gardner ranked potential job candidates on criteria ranging from “understands journalism” to “social class,” “Famous?,” and “skeptical/critical about tech’s societal effects.” The CJR’s Matthew Ingram said the spreadsheet reflected “the yawning cultural chasm between the business side and the editorial side” of The Markup. The former category, Ingram explained, found “bean counters” concerned with metrics like page views and uniques, name recognition and Twitter followers. The editorial staff, meanwhile, concerned itself with tone, content, and style.

Questioning the Tech Mindset

Some commentators have noted that The Markup drama looks eerily similar to some of the growing pains that initially befell eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media.

Back in 2014, Omidyar brought on Matt Taibbi, who, under the First Look brand, was tasked with managing a site called Racket devoted to muckraking and satire. However, soon after, Taibbi left the project amid a cloud of charges and countercharges. First Look subsequently announced it would drop Racket without Taibbi and let go all of the employees he had brought on. A year later, journalist Ken Silverstein quit First Look Media, telling the Huffington Post there was “no freedom,” just “epic managerial incompetence.”

Commenting on the Taibbi departure, Chris Lehmann, writing in In These Times, argued that “the most obvious culprit” behind the First Look drama wasn’t your typical high-stakes newsroom turf battle, but rather, “the reliance on truckloads of money from Silicon Valley” and the downsides of a tech startup culture. “These frenetically overmanaged operations function more as monuments to the hubris of the innovation economy than as proven models of productivity,” he wrote.

In retrospect, though, that critique seems overblown, given that First Look and its flagship publication, The Intercept, eventually stabilized and began to operate smoothly.

Competing Funding Strategies

A little chaos is expected when tech donors are writing the checks. More so than their institutional brethren, these funders are generally more sympathetic to edgy and disruptive start-ups. This impulse is hardwired into their philanthropic DNA. Newmark could have funded a proven outlet like ProPublica—aka “Big Tech’s scariest watchdog,” according to Fast Company’s Katharine Schwabbut instead, he decided to create one from scratch.

By launching a brand new outlet, funders like Newmark run the risk of hiring staff who face a steep learning curve. Sometimes, this doesn’t turn out to be a huge obstacle. When Herb Sandler launched ProPublica, he recruited Paul Steiger, who was just winding up a 16-year stint as the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal

But while Angwin had deep experience leading investigative teams in her role at ProPublica, she soon realized that her new role as editor in chief at The Markup was a step up. “I knew I had things I needed to learn,” she told Brian Stelter on his Reliable Sources podcast.

Though she did not call out Newmark directly, Huffington Post editor and chief Lydia Polgreen pushed back on this strategy of seeding new and relatively unproven ventures, tweeting, “Here’s an idea for funders and individuals who care about journalism: Support existing news organizations that are already doing great work!”

Yet data suggests that this is exactly what funders are doing. Last year, researchers at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Northeastern University assessed 32,422 grants distributed by foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. Total payout stood at $1.8 billion. Most of the funding backed “high-profile and well-connected nonprofits in coastal cities,” a phenomenon the authors described as “elites supporting elites.”

Similarly, a January piece by Monash University’s Bill Birnbauer in The Conversation noted that the vast majority of the $469.5 million that 60 digital nonprofit news media websites raised between 2009 and 2015 supported the 20 biggest outlets, while the 20 smallest squeaked by on just $8.6 million.

Given this funding imbalance, Newmark’s support for The Markup seems reasonable. Why give money to the well-funded usual suspects when new organizations have with potential for growth and an outlet like The Markup can serve a critical niche area? This “spread-the-wealth” approach creates a more diverse, equitable and innovative nonprofit journalism ecosystem.

Newmark isn’t alone in this line of thinking. Last year, Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and John Thornton of Texas Tribune launched the American Journalism Project based on the idea that that “venture philanthropy” can prop up local news. In April, the pair provided some clues about the project’s forthcoming first round of grantmaking. Thornton said that funded organizations will include a few startups and recipients that have gone live but remain “nascent” as sustainable ventures. Initial grants will also focus on “revenue raising and tech capacity.”

“The Perfect Funder”

The First Look and Markup controversies surface another question: Do tech donors have the proper skillset to oversee newsrooms, however indirectly? In These Times Lehmann isn’t so sure. “The First Look fiasco,” he said, “clearly shows that a tech industry conditioned for so long to scorn the outmoded folkways of ‘print culture’ and ‘legacy media’… is largely clueless about supervising the basic work of journalism.”

Omidyar is a programmer. Chris Hughes, who bought and eventually sold The New Republic, co-founded Facebook. Newmark, a lifelong tech geek, developed a serious interest in journalism when he started attending journalism conferences about 10 years ago. He also befriended the journalist and lecturer Jeff Jarvis, who is now a professor and the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. Newmark’s journalism pedigree is a step up from that of Omidyar and Hughes, but it pales in comparison to the in-house expertise of institutional journalism funders like Knight and Lenfest.

And so the familiar trope goes like this: A hugely successful, wealthy and well-intentioned tech patron parachutes into a newsroom to save hardened journalists and the industry he helped to bankrupt. The patron’s messianic and micromanaging impulses rub experienced hands the wrong way, and chaos, predictably, erupts.

It’s a convenient trope—except, as far as Craig Newmark and The Markup controversy is concerned, it’s not true. “He was the most hands-off funder ever,” Angwin told Brian Stelter. “Newmark was the perfect funder, because he isn’t in tech anymore, he was super hands-off—had no involvement in editorial, no interest in the involvement—and so that was such a great opportunity that I hope still might be salvaged.”

Similarly, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reached out to media figures who’ve worked with Newmark and had similar things to say. “Craig is a good guy and a self-identified nerd who hates conflict, and he has walked into this irrational, conflict-prone world,” a journalist told Pompeo. “He has this very earnest view about journalism, but then what he finds is that it’s a Bonfire of the Vanities, and we’re all insane egomaniacs.”

A “Natural Patron?”

While Newmark has only reluctantly stepped forward to sort out the mess at The Markup, one fear about tech-backed journalism outlets is that their philanthropic overlords might readily meddle in editorial matters. When Matt Taibbi was first hired by Omidyar, commentators like Paul Bradley Carr were “cynical that Omidyar would be able to sit back as his employee ripped apart the very same Wall Street that had made the eBay founder so wealthy.”

“Was this really the natural employer of a journalist who made his name exposing oligarchs?” Carr asked.

Taking Carr’s logic to its next logical step, some commentators are now wondering whether Craig Newmark is really the natural patron for an outlet whose mission is to expose Big Tech’s misdeeds.

Maybe not, but no philanthropist has pledged as much as Newmark to support new reporting on the tech industry. And in any case, Newmark’s success with The Markup in the future hinges less on how he made his fortune than who he next empowers to lead this fledgling operation. Newmark needs a Paul Steiger to step in. Or a Bill Keller, the veteran New York Times editor who became the founding editor in chief of the Marshall Project and oversaw its smooth emergence as a key outlet covering criminal justice issues. Or someone like Betsy Reed, who many credit with bringing a calm professionalism to The Intercept following its rocky early days.

With Angwin, Larson and Gardner all out of the picture, Newmark and the other donors have a blank slate—and so far, seem intent on sticking with The Markup. “I’m hopeful an announcement about the future of The Markup will be made soon,” Newmark said in a recent statement. “I remain absolutely committed to its mission.”