'Rogue' archivists are creating a copy of Gawker.com so that it will never die


Gawker.com will cease operations next week, but a group of digital archivists are creating a copy of the site that will live on no matter the original website’s ultimate fate.

Archive Team, a self-described “loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage,” which has existed since 2009, plans to back up the site so that it can be viewed in the future as it exists now.

While Archive Team didn’t respond to requests for comment by email, the group’s wiki lists the site as partially archived and public chat logs confirm that the group is on it. According to the logs, different volunteers are working on both Gawker.com and other Gawker Media sites (Kotaku and Lifehacker are mentioned by name).

Univision Communications Inc. (disclosure: Fusion’s parent company) purchased Gawker Media’s assets for $135 million in a court-supervised bankruptcy auction earlier this week. While Univision plans to run Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker and Kotaku, which will be folded into the Fusion Media Group, the flagship site will be the sole part of Gawker Media’s portfolio to stop running, which was announced on Thursday. The news and gossip site, which originally covered the media and recently switched to politics, had run continuously since 2003.

Asked for comment about what would happen to Gawker.com’s archives, UCI simply reiterated that it would not be operating the site. It may not actually even own the site; in a memo sent to staff Thursday, Gawker founder Nick Denton explained that Gawker Media had “not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com. The campaign being mounted against its editorial ethos and former writers has made it too risky.”

As Peter Kafka points out at Recode, that leaves Gawker.com in a sort of “zombie status.” On Thursday, Gawker Media said the official fate of Gawker.com’s archives was uncertain and the company did not immediately answer emails asking if that has changed.

Gawker Media was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy after a Florida jury delivered a $140 million judgement against the company in a case brought by former professional wrestler Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. Bollea sued the site for posting a surreptitiously-made sex tape of him. In May news broke that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel helped finance Hogan’s suit in response to Gawker’s reporting on him. Thiel hoped to use the legal system to kill the site, and he has partially succeeded, given what Denton has referred to as the “mothball[ing]” of Gawker.com.

In the past, when an analog newspaper suddenly shut down, its past copies would still exist in physical or microfiche form, dutifully stored away by libraries. But the fate of a digital journalism site’s past stories is more uncertain. If the server bill to host that site stops being paid, it can simply disappear. It’s unclear here who, if anyone, will pay to keep the website up. And while there are Internet Archive mirrors of various Gawker.com articles, and even the homepage, it’s unclear if a complete extant archive exists anywhere but the site itself.

And so we have Archive Team to the rescue. The group was started by Jason Scott (who now, separately, works at Internet Archive) in order to save parts of GeoCities, the widely used web-hosting service which was bought by Yahoo in 1999 and shuttered in 2009. The group saved enough material from different websites hosted on GeoCities to turn it into a 652 gigabyte torrent file, which was released in late 2010 and remains available to this day. In addition to GeoCities, Archive Team runs a number of automated and manual archive projects, including a backup of the defunct Google-owned social network Orkut and parts of LiveJournal. It’s unclear what the Gawker.com archive will be a downloadable file or live in an “as-is” form on the web, though we’re told that the archives will ultimately end up at the Internet Archive, a non-profit dedicated to digital preservation.

The internet is not as permanent as we’ve been led to believe: Sites go inactive. Images vanish. “Any document, video or photo can in principle remain there indefinitely, available to be viewed by anyone with a connection. But in reality, things disappear constantly,” wrote Jenna Wortham recently. “As the web evolves, it becomes harder to preserve.”

If Gawker’s archives were to disappear completely, some people the site has written about (such as Peter Thiel) would be thrilled, but it would mean the loss of some important writing and journalism. The site existed for more than a decade. Among its recent greatest hits was breaking the news that Rob Ford, the late former mayor of Toronto, had used crack; that Josh Duggar, reality star and family values activist, used Ashley Madison; a very thorough investigation of Donald Trump’s hair; and Bill O’Reilly’s treatment of his now-ex-wife. That’s to say nothing of cultural criticism like “On Smarm” or “No Offense,” or of the many other little bits and pieces of great work the many versions of Gawker did. The site’s archives double as an archive of the development of contemporary web journalism.

It’s nice to know someone’s working to preserve it.

Additional reporting by Kashmir Hill

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at [email protected]

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