“I’ve got a tip for you.”
Those are welcome words these days for news organizations across the new media landscape. The political climate, fueled by the unorthodox tenor of the Trump administration, has thrust open the door for a new generation of news tipsters.
President Trump’s condemnation of the mainstream media and smudging the line between what’s real and what’s not has sent the journalistic status quo into a tumult. In response, citizens not traditionally part of the editorial process have felt encouraged to get involved and hold the government accountable.
Earlier this month, the founder of Craigslist, Craig Newmark, donated $1 million to ProPublica — which notoriously performs deep investigative accountability journalism — while The New York Times has seen a significant bump in subscribers, as the thirst for truth (and at times, gossip) surrounding Washington proves unending.
News organizations have pounced on this newfound interest in inclusion with the process, and as a result, expanded their calls for tips and leaks with heightened urgency. The homepages of publications such as The Washington Post and various Gizmodo Media properties are splashed with sprawling banners and even whole pages containing instructions on how to securely and anonymously drop tips to reporters. It’s an exercise that, historically, has been fundamental to news gathering — from Watergate to the National Security Agency scandal.
For John Cook, executive editor of Gizmodo Media’s special projects desk, which runs the newly launched “Tell on Trump” tips program, the rise in a call for information is palpable.
“There’s a little bit more urgency to make sure that the people within the agencies and the bureaucracies who have something to say have a way to find you and have a place where they can send newsworthy information,” Cook said, noting that his outfit, formerly known as Gawker Media, has always relied on tips and its audience in particular to funnel through information.
Cook launched the special projects desk in January, concurrent with the swearing-in of the president. At first, Cook and his team used targeted ads on Facebook to get the attention of employees of federal agencies specifically, so that people who worked in or around the White House could communicate intel about the conduct of the incoming administration. Gizmodo Media also put up physical advertisements in Washington, D.C., bus shelters, seeking news tips.
Cook said he believes the Internet has fostered a culture of sharing and created a place where people feel they can easily and safely communicate. The web rewards users for distributing information — potentially removing any friction that may have existed within the exchange in years past.
“We’re in an environment where people see, for better or for worse, the impact that information can have on news cycles and political events,” Cook said. “There are naturally going to be more opportunities for people who see newsworthy changes going on to communicate those to reporters who are interested in informing the public about what their government is doing.”
According to the Times’ deputy investigations editor Gabriel Dance, who was on the team that broke the NSA story involving infamous tipster Edward Snowden, the reason behind increased requests for news tips from everyday citizens isn’t so cut-and-dry.
“I think the public’s actually probably a little bit confused on what to think about all of it,” he said. “You have a president who’s actively railing against leaks, saying they result in fake news. At the same time, you have numerous news organizations breaking big stories based in whole or, at least in part, on tips coming through.”
Dance launched the Times’ tips line with director of newsroom security Runa Sandvik on Dec. 15. The timing was merely a coincidence, said Dance, who noted that the Times previously didn’t have an active call-out for tips that made it easy for people to leave information. Prior to the program that exists at the Times today, Dance said the way to leave pointers was complicated, both on the tipster’s end as well as for the receiver.
“I wanted ways for people to reach us that had a lower barrier to entry,” he said. “One of the novel things that the Times did was use Signal and WhatsApp, encrypted, mobile applications that are very similar to text messages.”
It seems the Trump administration isn’t the only motivation nudging people to give up info. Dance said he thinks that in a way, folks feel encouraged by having a direct line of communication to a place like the Times. The expanded channels through which people can get in touch with a national newspaper gives them a push to leave tips and provides a level of comfort. That may be a sign of the public’s relationship with the press today, influenced by a polarizing presidency and the myriad platforms where these issues can be openly — and yet securely — discussed.