A Rare Exception to Post-Industrial Journalism

The fact that SecureDrop must reside on the premises of each news organization makes it somewhat unique among the new tools and platforms that journalism organizations use to connect with the public. Many journalists and their employers now post their stories to social media sites like Twitter or Facebook, which currently serve as some of the most influential portals for readers to find news and entertainment.

For Emily Bell, professor of Journalism and director of the Tow Center at Columbia, this indicates that news organizations are losing control over their distribution channels as more of their work is consumed through a network of social media platforms. “Social media and platform companies took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to,” Bell wrote in a recent piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. The choices the companies running these social networks make—on matters like whether to permit ad-blocking software—may now be the main factor in determining the fates of publishers.9

SecureDrop is a notable exception to this state of affairs—sometimes characterized as a move toward “post-industrial journalism”—in which news organizations allow outside parties to manage more of the gathering and distribution of their content.10 The SecureDrop servers must reside within the newsroom, first and foremost because this location is under its control and is granted the legal protections the US affords to its press. If the organization placed the system on a server farm, or used any seemingly secure communication platform run by a third party, its data could be seized without any consideration for the effect it might have on the freedom of the press. This seizure could also happen without their knowledge.

SecureDrop, by working to restore the press protections that have proved elusive in the context of digital media, is at once an undeniably advanced technology, and also one developed to reassert the past conditions of journalistic practice. The SecureDrop system cannot be outsourced without losing the key pillars of its security model, so its place in the newsroom is fixed even as the conditions of post-industrial journalism may rapidly push other fixtures of the newsroom further afield.