In an open letter to Peter Thiel in 2016, Gawker founder Nick Denton chided the Silicon Valley billionaire for his revenge suit against Gawker. He ended his letter with a number of questions for Thiel:
“Is your goal to bankrupt, buy, or wound Gawker Media? If you were to own the company after a final judgment in the Hogan case, what would your editorial strategy be?” said Denton.
With more outlets facing the threat of this so-called “billionaire problem,” where billionaires buy news outlets with less than honorable intentions, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is working to archive sites facing this threat before it’s too late.
The project was prompted in part by the Gawker story. Thiel recently made a bid for the site’s remaining assets, including its domain and the 200,000-odd stories it hosts. The Silicon Valley mogul, who bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s 2016 lawsuit against Gawker, has harbored a vendetta for the gossip site since it outed him in 2007. Purchasing the site would allow Thiel to remove the stories concerning him or to take down the whole website altogether. Mike Cernovich also recently placed a bid of $500,000 on the site, which once called him a “D-list right-winger.”
“It’s a relatively new trend,” Parker Higgins, director of special projects at Freedom of the Press Foundation, told MediaFile in an interview. “Money has been influential on journalism for a long time but it really is Peter Thiel’s campaign against Gawker that outlined the blueprint for the strategy that we’re concerned about.”
The foundation’s archiving project began with Gawker and has also archived LA Weekly, a free alt-weekly whose new owners initially concealed their identities leading some to believe that their motivation for purchasing the site was to take it down.
Archiving a news site involves crawling through the websites and capturing the site’s links in HTML, making them fully searchable. The foundation has partnered with Archive-It, a project of the Internet Archive, to complete this project.
Other sites have faced “billionaire problem” in recent months, including local news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist. In November, employees of those outlets were surprised when their sites, hosting many years worth of articles, were taken down and replaced by a note from Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who owned the sites. Ricketts explained that he was shuttering all of his media properties leading to 115 layoffs. This move by Ricketts came just a week after employees had unionized, an idea which Ricketts had publicly opposed.
DNA Info’s and Gothamist’s content was restored the following day and remains online today. But in the immediate aftermath of Rickett’s decision, chaos ensued as reporters faced the prospect of losing years of their published work.
— Christopher Robbins (@ChristRobbins) November 2, 2017
The least Ricketts could do is keep the DNA Info archives up so the reporters whose lives he just upended can get new jobs
— Gregory Pratt (@royalpratt) November 2, 2017
— 😈 (@turtlekiosk) November 3, 2017
At the time, Higgins helped some reporters at DNA Info and Gothamist retrieve PDFs of their work. The PDFs ensured that individual journalists would have clips to show in future job interviews, but would not serve as a reliable system for archiving whole websites.
“What we’re doing here is more of a long-term archive for the site as an entity,” said Higgins, who says reporters have reached out to him about archiving several sites that may be in danger of a hostile owner.
“One of the things that we can do to make it less likely to happen is to reduce the upside for the person who might want to engage in this kind of attack on press freedom,” said Higgins. “This is definitely something that we wish we didn’t have to deal with, but it’s a real concern and it happens right here.”