an independent journalist in north america
6734 words
@jason_a_w

How to help journalists (and yourself) by preserving online materials

As I write, I'm preparing for a large, contentious pair of rallies in Portland, Oregon.

I'll be on the ground, some of you will be watching it online. You may see something that you wish to preserve, and pass on to journalists. But online materials have a habit of disappearing, especially if they contain incriminating or discrediting content.

Here's a tip sheet on how to preserve online materials with tools and very brief comments, in a way that helps us report on these events.

The first thing to say tis that these are tools for desktop/laptop users. Mobile is tricker, and not ideal for preserving content beyond simple screenshot (further discussion of those below). If all you can preserve is a mobile screenshot, it sure is better than nothing! But we would need to find other ways of authenticating that information. (Not because we suspect you, in particular, are fibbing, but because screenshots are easily faked, and this is the way journalism has to work).

Second thing to say is you should prioritize staying safe online: use a high quality VPN, use encrypted email, use an encrypted note-taking app like Standard Notes, use 2 factor authentication, use a password manager, use encrypted cloud storage, encrypt your hard drive.

To save time, follow the recommendations and go through the checklist at Think Privacy.

If you preserve something make notes - record the date and time, any relevant URLs, who produced the content, and how you found it.

For video, the best thing to use is the free, open source tool, youtube-dl, which will allow you to download videos from YouTube, Facebook, and tons of other sites. It's a command line tool but as this tutorial shows, it's very easy to use, and very powerful.

For convenience on Twitter, there is a browser extension called Twitter media downloader for Chrome (and other Chromium based browsers) ands Firefox.

Another browser extension called downthemall will download all of the files on a web page, including images and PDFs - you can specify which files to download.

We get a lot of screenshots, which is great. But screenshots will generally need further verification, because they're easily faked. A tool like FireShot will capture additional context ((time, date, url) that a cropped screenshot done with your systems native tool (print screen or shift+alt+4) will not.

Even better than screenshots are archives, whose underlying technology means that they would pretty much stand up in court. We'll still need to try to confirm anything you give us in other ways, but archiving content with dedicated services creates a record that is extremely compelling.

There's a one-click browser extension, The Archiver, that will immediately save what you're looking at to the two major archiving services - archive.is and the Wayback Machine.

Archives are the gold standard of proof for us. Just remember a few things:

  • Wayback will not preserve stuff from Twitter or Facebook - archive.is will.
  • They can show a video was published on YouTube (itself important) but you should also download the video itself, which may not be playable on an archive site
  • Remember to copy and record the URLs of the archived pages from the archive site, so you can find the material later.

Feel free to reach out to me, or another journalist, but try to remember that a big rally day is very busy, and we may not respond immediately. If what your seeing is an emergency or a danger to human safety or human life, contact law enforcement first.

If you've already got a reasonable safety setup, it shouldn't take more than several minutes to get set up.

Take good care out there.

Writing and reading

Today I have a news feature out in The Guardian, which describes the changing dynamics in Portland's protests. Far right protesters, and right-on-left political violence, have once again emerged on the city's streets.

Interesting, inspiring, or troubling things I read this week (in no particular order):

Welcome

Welcome to my new website.

Incredibly, despite a quarter century online, this is the first time I have had my own website functioning on my own domain.

The reasons for that aren't as important as the reason I have decided to make a change in 2020: I am utterly dissatisfied, and intermittently horrified, by the mainstream services that many people use to maintain a presence online, and to perform sensitive work.

My discomfort arises from a mounting concern for the privacy and security of myself and the people I communicate with—especially the sources who take risks to pass on information to me.

The dominant companies offering social media platforms, email, or professional networking platforms cannot guarantee the privacy of their users. For the most part they don’t even pretend to.

Their businesses are either wholly or partly based on harvesting and selling our data to third parties. In addition, reporting (including some of mine) has shown how freely those companies will hand over user data to state agencies.

I cannot think of any reason why I should trust them, or those companies on lower tiers of the industry who are hoping to emulate them. I'd rather go with organizations that don't ask for or expect my trust.

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There are other considerations. Among them:

  1. I do not believe that the platforms many of us use every day are economically, socially, technologically, or ecologically sustainable.
  2. I want as much control as I can manage to attain over my online interactions, my work, and the face I present to the world.
  3. As a journalist and a human being, I no longer want to be confined to someone else’s proprietary ecosystem. At the moment, I am in the middle of a long overdue breakup with Apple, Inc., but it would be a waste to make that effort only to lurch into the arms of, say, Google. I'd like to get rid of Google, too. I don't want to be at the mercy of platform owners.

Like many people, I have nursed these misgivings for a long time. Only relatively recently have I begun taking decisive action with one goal in mind: ensuring that my whole workflow is only visible to me, and parts of it only to those people I explicitly choose to share it with.

Moving to this site is part of an experiment in becoming an “independent journalist” in a sense that is much deeper and more thoroughgoing than “someone who doesn't have a staff job”.

Independence means owning one’s practice, which in turn means limiting dependence on anyone else’s technological, institutional, or commercial ecosystem.

I've been discovering that it's never been easier, or cheaper, to put together an independent infrastructure.

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This site, then, has two main purposes.

First, the permanent pages linked to at the top of the site give you what you need to get in touch with me, whether you want to pass on tips or hire me.

For everybody who might need it, my contact information is on this site.

Those pages have other information about me. For clients, I also have a clips portfolio you can look over. If you want more general information about me, look no further.

Second, I'll use the blog at the front of the site as a venue for thinking through an ethos and a practice of independence in a time of overlapping crises and enormous opportunities.

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Here's where I at in those thoughts right now.

The public interest demands journalism investigating the multiple, interlinked crises that are currrently convulsing the world. But newsrooms, staff jobs, and the whole structure of what used to be the news business are all disappearing, in many cases forever.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that all is not lost—far from it. The schematics of a model for sustainable, independent journalism have never been clearer.

  • The barriers to entry into the practice of gathering and publishing news have never been lower. We can make them even lower through the considered and intelligent use of technology.
  • Destabilized media institutions are often less concerned with professional hierarchies and gatekeeping, and more open to contributions from independent journalists.
  • It is easier than ever for journalists to establish direct relationships with their readers, including relationships of reader support.
  • Free and open source software—from computer operating systems, to text and audiovisual editing programs, to tools which allow deep investigation using digital methods—can support a low cost, adaptable, sustainable, and exceptionally effective model of investigative practice for any independent journalists who apply themselves to learning their use.
  • The democratization of encryption means that independents can operate with a higher degree of security than ever before.

On this blog i will start filling those outlines in. the list above encompasses the topics you're likely to read about here.

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How does this fit in with my other activities?

I am primarily a working journalist. The clips show work on topics like right wing extremism, conservative media, policing and the security state, contentious street protests, and some more general news, features, and commentary.

They also show a long and pretty close relationship with The Guardian.

I am not staff there, but I hope to continue to publish there as often as they will have me.

But I publish in other outlets as well, and I am also involved in another experiment in independent journalism with my friend, Corey Pein. (More details about all of this is on my About page.)

This blog sits alongside all of that work. It is, perhaps, a slight return to my past as a journalism and communications educator in Australian universities.

I'll write more on this soon, but as long as a decade ago, I was dissatisfied with a model of journalism education which was, in my view, little more than outsourced newsroom training for an industry which was already looking wobbly. We shouldn't have focused so much on newsroom training in 2010. In 2020 it looks like a species of madness.

I promise never to assume here that there is a home awaiting any of us in a newsroom.

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Some housekeeping:

  1. The site as it is hosted by the Listed blogging platform offered with Standard Notes, a very fine program which is at the heart of my writing system.1

    You’ll notice the site is pretty bare bones. There is in fact no “back end” - the site in its entirety is generated from a number of plain text files written in the Markdown protocol. What you see is pretty much what you get.

    There are no images, no hotlinks, no files. That is because it is designed to last. Standard Notes’s commitment to longevity is itselt encouraging, but if they fell over tomorrow I could easily migrate everything to another host, or a very lightweight self-hosted site.

    Most importsntly, though, Standard Notes doesn't ask me to trust them. The service is premised on offering users a service where "all your data... is encrypted anywhere you don't control".

  2. There are many ways to keep up with what’s happening here, should you wish to.

    If you like newsletters, Listed allows you to subscribe to this site via email. You'll only ever get an email when I post. I won't make promises about cadence, but it will not be frequent enough to feel like spam. I won't share your email address with anyone, ever.

    You can also get an RSS feed on the subscription page, and I will post links to new posts her on my Twitter feed.

    The commenting system here is not of the familiar, instantaneous kind. Listed has a "Guestbook" where you can submit comments that are private by default, and which I can later make public on the Guestbook page. We'll see how this goes.

    EDIT Decided against the guestbook, just @ me

  3. Lots of journalists are currently trying to get income streams through newsletters. That's fine, and I am happy that it is working for some people. But I will not be doing that here. All content on the site will be free. I may adapt some of it for commercial purposes later, but you can ignore the solicitation for donations at the Guest Book. Here, I am off the clock.


  1. I will explain this odd term in an imminent post 

New Story at Guardian US - Blueleaks and Google

I have a new story at The Guardian's US edition today about some Google material I pulled from the #Blueleaks trove.

A little-known investigative unit inside search giant Google regularly forwarded detailed personal information on the company’s users to members of a counter-terrorist fusion center in California’s Bay Area, according to leaked documents reviewed by the Guardian.

But checking the documents against Google’s platforms reveals that in some cases Google did not necessarily ban the users they reported to the authorities, and some still have accounts on YouTube, Gmail and other services.

The users were often threatening violence or otherwise expressing extremist views, often associated with the far right.

The documents come from the so-called “Blueleaks” trove, which hackers acquired from the servers of a hosting company in Texas which had been used by several law enforcement agencies. It contains hundreds of thousands of documents from more than 200 agencies, dated between 1996 and June 2020.

Go read it at the site, and stay tuned.