In May of 2017, nearly a year after Gawker shut down, a story mysteriously disappeared from its archives. The 2015 article detailed leaked emails written by Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, which had become public after the company’s servers were breached in 2014. The story was removed as the result of an undisclosed lawsuit—and served as a troubling reminder that journalism on the internet is fragile, and subject to censorship by wealthy and well-connected individuals.
The deletion also raised questions about what would happen to the remainder of the Gawker archive, which contains hundreds of thousands of news articles spanning 14 years. On Wednesday, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Internet Archive announced they had an answer.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Director of Special Projects Parker Higgins said in a blog post that the nonprofit was creating an online archives collection designed to preserve news sites before they can be taken down or manipulated by billionaires or other similarly powerful individuals. The first item in the collection will be the entirety of the Gawker.com archives. The project will use Archive-It, a service developed by the Internet Archive to preserve online content, one page at a time. “It’s too late for Gawker as a functioning publisher,” says Higgins. “But we do hope we can keep the archives alive.”
The project couldn’t have arrived at a better time: A number of parties have expressed interest in buying the Gawker domain, many of whom appear either uninterested or actively hostile to the preservation of its existing stories. One of the suitors reportedly considering a Gawker bid is Peter Thiel, the very tech billionaire who bankrolled a lawsuit against the company brought by retired celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan. The lawsuit crippled Gawker, and ultimately led it to file for bankruptcy in 2016. The site was later bought by Univision, which ceased publication on Gawker but kept its sister sites—including Gizmodo and Jezebel—running.
Vanity Fair reported Tuesday that right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich, a frequent Gawker antagonist, had also ponied up $500,000 in a bid for what remains of the site.
Higgins says he hopes preserving Gawker will dissuade buyers interested primarily in disappearing it from the internet. “The idea is that if we can just take the censorship option off the table, then it might not even be worth pursuing,” he says.
After Gawker was acquired, two of Univision’s executives voted to remove six posts published by former Gawker Media properties that were involved in ongoing litigation. That raises an interesting question: If another lawsuit is brought against a Gawker article in the archive, would Freedom of the Press have to shoulder any legal burden? Higgins thinks it’s an unlikely problem.
“At least for now the way we are doing this is that [the archives] are stored on Internet Archive servers, and they have a really strong track record of going to the mat on free speech things,” he says. “If there were more of a call to get stuff taken down from the Internet Archive, that would be alarming in all kinds of ways.”
Higgins also pointed out that Freedom of the Press is likely not the only organization moving to preserve Gawker and other publications. For one, many sites’ former journalists have downloaded copies of their own work. “I already have a janky offline PDF archive of all of my stuff, but I think it’s really important to have an easily accessible archive so that the internet won’t have to rely on Thiel’s characterization of the work Gawker did, but can see for themselves,” says Sam Biddle, a former Gawker journalist who worked at Gawker Media for nearly six years. “I’m impressed and grateful Freedom of the Press isn’t intimidated.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s media preservation efforts extend beyond Gawker. The organization has also already captured a copy of LA Weekly, an alternative Los Angeles newspaper that was recently bought by mysterious owners who initially declined to reveal themselves to the publication’s employees. Shortly after the site was bought, a former editor published a blog post on the LA Weekly website titled “Who Owns LA Weekly?” which was later deleted. But Freedom of the Press had already captured a copy. The organization is also working to archive the blog The Toast. Its former editor Nicole Cliffe recently announced the site—along with its archives—would be temporarily shuttered.
Cliffe was also notified Tuesday that The Toast will be archived by the US Library of Congress. “I’m endlessly grateful that so many people continue to love and value something that meant so much to us,” says Cliffe.
The Archive-It service that Freedom of the Press will use already helps libraries, academics, schools, and other groups preserve information on the internet. For example, the University of California Los Angeles maintains a collection of webpages related to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Protests. Using Freedom of the Press’ “Threatened Outlets” database, you can search for a specific article by publication.
If you come across a webpage that has been removed anywhere online, a good place to start is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. There you can enter a link, and see if the non-profit has an archived version of that page. There’s also a Chrome extension that does the same thing. You can use both services to resurface any deleted Toast, Gawker, and LA Weekly articles, according to Higgins’ blog post.
This isn’t the first project Freedom of the Press has worked on related to preserving online journalism. In November, the organization released gotham-grabber, a tool which lets journalists and others automatically create PDF versions of news articles. The project was created after both the Gothamist network of sites and DNAInfo—a local news site that focused on neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City—were shuttered suddenly in November by their billionaire owner after employees at the publications voted to unionize. After the sites were closed, their archives were temporarily unavailable, sending writers who had worked for the publications into panic.
“When we were shut down and thought that all of our work was destroyed it was the worst feeling you could possibly have,” says Rebecca Fishbein, who worked at Gothamist for six years. “I’ve written over 4,700 posts [for Gothamist], I wasn’t really able to get 4700 PDFs onto my computer.” Using gotham-grabber, Higgins was able to provide Fishbein with an archive of all her work within a couple of hours.
Together, the Freedom of the Press’ two tools provide a strong framework for reducing censorship in online journalism. A disgruntled billionaire may very well be less likely to try and take over a publication if they know they can’t delete its articles from the web. Of course, causing a site to cease publication in the first place causes much deeper harm. Still, it’s comforting to know that with the help of Freedom of Press and Archive-It, the internet never forgets.
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