February 2, 2018

The Freedom of the Press Foundation has an idea to combat our “billionaire problem”


Responding to headlines that venture capitalist Peter Thiel hopes to purchase all of Gawker’s archives, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has announced it’s creating an archive of alternative media. The archive is a collaboration with Archive-it, a service of the Internet Archive, in their efforts to keep the legacies of news sites out of the hands of private billionaires and preserve online journalism as it stands today.

Gawker/Thiel — it’s a story we all know and hate. The mess between the billionaire from Silicon Valley and the provocative, groundbreaking news site goes back to late 2007, when Gawker’s Owen Thomas outed Thiel. Ten years later, Thiel was exposed as the financier and architect of the lawsuit by which Hulk Hogan bankrupted the site.

The FPF’s announcement, written by director of special projects Parker Higgins, explains, “Our collection, focusing on news outlets we deem to be especially vulnerable to [the] ‘billionaire problem,’ aims to preserve sites in their entirety before their archives can be taken down or manipulated.”

The “billionaire problem” has brought down not just Gawker, but Gothamist and dnainfo too, not long after union-busting billionaire Joe Ricketts acquired them and caught wind of a unionization effort. It has also claimed LA Weekly, yet another alt-weekly lost in the storm of opaque buyouts and ownership transfers by rich men who have no business in journalism.

The project uses Archive-It to capture a web site as it appears at certain moment in time (say, before it’s acquired by a billionaire). By “crawling” the site, i.e. taking snapshots of each page’s contents, the system creates a permanent log. The FPF statement credits the system with preserving sites associated with Occupy Wall Street, as well as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The new initiative has already trawled the archives of both Gawker and LA Weekly.

Higgins’s statement ends with a call to reporters: “If you are a journalist who needs PDF backups of your work from archives that may not stick around, please get in touch.”

It’s perhaps the most essential fight today for the First Amendment: the moneyed interests driving closures of alternative presses and online news sites threaten to severely curtail media freedom in this country. That’s a truly horrifying future. The FPF’s efforts are a vital and honorable reaction to these latest attacks.

Higgins ends by saying:

…another important thing we can do to reduce the effectiveness of this kind of attack on press freedom is to commit ourselves to the wholesale preservation of threatened sites.

In this case, we seek to reduce the “upside” for wealthy individuals and organizations who would eliminate embarrassing or unflattering coverage by purchasing outlets outright. In other words, we hope that sites that can’t simply be made to disappear will show some immunity to the billionaire problem.



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.