The Markup: AMA with Jeff Larson

Conversations with Data: #13

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Welcome to the 13th edition of Conversations with Data! This week, we’re shifting away from our usual focus of reporting with technology, to reporting on it.

That’s right, we’re talking the tech beat.

While there’s a growing number of dedicated journos investigating the social impacts of technology, you might’ve noticed that there are no dedicated newsrooms for this beat. That is, until now.

Step in: The Markup.

Due to launch in 2019, The Markup will leverage scientific and data-centred methods to produce journalism that closes this gap.

The newsroom will be led by a dream team of tech-savvy journos, including Jeff Larson as Managing Editor. To find out more, we got together with Jeff to answer your burning questions. Read on for a sneak peek into their plans.


What you asked

First up, let’s talk goals: What are you hoping to achieve with The Markup?

"In our investigations, The Markup will show the consequences of society’s reliance on new technologies for decisions that impact people’s lives.

We’ve already got a great team in place. Julia Angwin, a colleague of mine at ProPublica, is our Editor in Chief, Susan Gardner, formerly of Wikipedia, is our Executive Director and I’m the Managing Editor of The Markup. We also have fantastic people working on investigations: Lauren Kirchner, Surya Mattu and Madeleine Varner.

In the past, we teamed up on investigations that revealed that criminal risk scores were biased against African Americans, that technology companies were funding hate speech, and that minority neighbourhoods pay higher for car insurance than similarly risky white neighbourhoods. None of those stories could have been done by any of us alone, and I’m excited to build a pipeline of collaborations between data journalists, like myself, and reporters, like Julia, at The Markup.


From ProPublica’s risk score investigation, which wrongly rated the chances of Prater and Borden reoffending. He did, she did not.

In each of those stories, we were inspired by the scientific method. We had a hypothesis, we wanted to test it, we looked at the data and it panned out. We also realised that investigative journalism is a team sport: you need a bunch of people with different talents to really hold power to account."

How much will The Markup focus on day to day news vs. longer investigative work?

"We’re aiming to publish an investigation a month, but we will publish smaller stories every day.

We won’t be doing a lot of breaking news. It just doesn’t make sense for a small newsroom to chase that when there are so many other news organisations that are better at that than we could hope to be.

Our daily stories will be more explanatory for ordinary folks. Technology is serious, it isn’t a Silicon Valley fad, an endless series of new gadgets, or a story of earnings calls and Wall Street deals. It is 2018, and technology is choosing how we raise our kids, who we vote for, who gets what job, who is able to get housing, healthcare and a comfortable life. We feel that people need a helpful and knowledgeable guide through these effects of technology on their daily lives.

The Markup will be that guide. We aim to help people navigate these issues through our investigations and our daily stories. If that seems awesome to you, please keep an eye on our jobs page, we’ll be hiring over the next few months!"

As you mentioned, you’re no stranger to the tech beat. What’s the most challenging technology-focussed story you’ve worked on and why?

"I’m not super into war stories because they drive the focus away from team based work -- what may have been difficult for me probably wasn’t for other folks.

I’ll say that I’m most proud of the car insurance story that we did at ProPublica (with Consumer Reports), because that story was a new way of looking at insurance and it showed that many national insurance companies were overcharging minority neighbourhoods when compared with white neighbourhoods."

Do you have any advice for other data journalists covering the social impacts of technology?

"In general, my advice for data journalists is to focus on human impact. Ask yourself, who is being harmed or affected here? It is an easy thing to focus on trends or novel quirks of data, but it is a much harder task to tell a human story through that data. It is weird, but this is a common practice when covering government policies, like education, criminal justice, or healthcare, but it is rare in data journalism about technology."

Our next conversation

It’s been a while since we last talked about our favourite charts -- we’ve even had a lil bit of data viz withdrawal. So, for our next edition, we figured it’d be fun to share your favourite maps.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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