Jan 18, 2022 - Economy & Business

The Markup doubles down on data tools as revenue grows

Illustration of a line of giant cellphones falling like dominos about to fall on a small man
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on data-driven tech investigations, had $6.8 million in revenue in 2021 — mostly from philanthropy — up from $4.2 million in 2020, according to its president, Nabiha Syed.

Why it matters: The outlet aims to distinguish itself from the barrage of modern tech coverage by focusing on consumers, particularly those that suffer from inequalities driven by tech, rather than the investor business class.

The big picture: The challenge for The Markup is getting ordinary people to pay attention to complex, data-heavy stories. Its nonprofit model helps it avoid commercial pressure to primarily serve elite business audiences.

  • The outlet, which does deep investigations into tech-adjacent topics like privacy, tech and labor, ad tech, algorithms and machine learning, measures its success in impact — often regulatory impact.
  • Some of its biggest pieces, like a data investigation into biases hidden in mortgage-approval algorithms, have been cited by regulators looking to strengthen public protection laws.

Details: The nonprofit, which now has 30 employees, launched with 19 people in early 2020, just ahead of the pandemic. Just under 50% of its staff are women and nearly half are people of color, according to internal data provided to Axios.

  • "It was a perfect moment for us to prove out why the market for our journalism exists," said Syed. "Tech isn't a niche. It's the entire fabric of how we're connected, so it warrants inquiries for who it's not serving."
  • While still small, the outlet has focused on growing its web traffic and social footprint over the past year. Its weekly newsletter, led by editor-in-chief and founder Julia Angwin and its reporting update newsletter now have a combined 14,000 subscribers, per Syed.

Between the lines: A huge part of The Markup's revenue increase last year was attributed to a $2.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation.

  • While Syed recognizes the economic opportunity afforded by subscriptions, she said the outlet will always keep its products and content free to ensure they are widely accessible.
  • Moving forward, The Markup said it hopes to continue building out revenue from small-dollar donations. Right now, it has "hundreds" of small donors, but relies mostly on philanthropy from big foundations.

What to watch: Over the past year, the company has built three publicly available data tools, including an app called CitizenBrowser that showcases which content on social media is being algorithmically elevated, a website privacy tracking tool called Blacklight and an Amazon Brand Detector extension that shows which Amazon products are actually owned by Amazon, not third-parties.

  • The Markup's goal for 2022 is to continue building data privacy tools that it can rollout to the public.
  • It hopes that with access to those tools, readers can help it investigate Big Tech inequities long after their initial investigative stories are published.
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