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May 25, 2017, 11:04 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With its Special Projects Desk, Univision is keeping Gawker’s spirit alive at Gizmodo Media Group

The investigative unit, now at eight people, is dedicated to covering the inner workings of our most powerful institutions.

Reporters at ProPublica and Gizmodo Media Group didn’t hack the Mar-a-Lago wifi network, but they probably could have if they’d tried. Instead, last month, with antennas aimed at Trump properties in New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., the reporters just checked for vulnerabilities — which they found in great supply. As one researcher said in the story, the security situation was “bad, very bad.”

The project wasn’t a one-off for Gizmodo Media Group. Earlier this month, the team targeted 15 people both inside and outside the Trump administration with an email and landing page designed to see how easily they would submit their Google credentials to real phishers. None were entirely fooled, but some, including Newt Gingrich and former FBI director James Comey, were convinced enough that they replied to the emails.

Both projects are a product of the Gizmodo Media Group Special Projects Desk, an eight-person investigative unit focused on long-term, in-depth reporting into the inner workings of groups in media, entertainment, and, yes, the Trump administration. (It’s known internally as the Flashlight Team.) While investigative units are nothing new within news organizations, what’s set the Special Projects Desk apart so far are efforts like its security test and phishing scheme, which are designed around the idea that there’s room for investigative projects that push the envelope beyond what many organizations might be comfortable with.

“There are a lot of places that wouldn’t do these stories,” said John Cook, editor of the Special Projects Desk. “But we took an opportunity to do stories that are clearly in the public interest, but ones that other organizations whose rules or self-conceptions wouldn’t permit them to do.”

The idea for the investigative unit started last August, when Univision acquired Gawker Media but not the somewhat radioactive Gawker itself, which shut down. The loss of Gawker was a major disappointment to those both inside and outside the company who worried that the investigative spirit of the scrappy, independent Gawker Media would be smothered in a larger, more mainstream media company. The Special Projects Desk is meant to keep that spirit alive. “It sort of offset the loss of Gawker — that was part of the thinking,” said Cook. “Gawker was like Gawker for a reason. It was the people who were there, and we want to continue with that same perspective.”

The Special Projects Desk is unique among Gizmodo Media Group properties in that it doesn’t have its own website, editorial voice, or audience. Instead, the group produces projects on behalf of the other GMG sites. In some cases, the ideas have started with the unit itself; in others, reporters have come to the Special Projects Desk to ask for reporting advice or resources. Since its launch in January, the group has produced stories for The Slot, Gizmodo, Jezebel, and Fusion. It’s also used its role as a hub of investigative reporting expertise to invite the Freedom of the Press Foundation to give a presentation about security training and source protection. “We see ourselves as a resource of the whole organization,” Cook said.

The more stuntlike elements of Special Projects Desk’s approach have plenty of historical antecedents in journalism. In 1978, for example, the Chicago Sun-Times created The Mirage, a seedy tavern a few blocks north of the Chicago River, as the centerpiece to the paper’s investigation into widespread claims of corrupt city inspectors shaking down Chicago businesses. In an effort to catch these officials in the act, the newspaper staffed the bar with reporters and hid cameras in the walls. In 1990, Spy Magazine mailed 58 wealthy Americans checks for $1.11, and later, $0.64 and $0.13, to see how many would cash them (Donald Trump was, famously, one of the recipients who did). And then there’s Nellie Bly, the reporter who in 1887 feigned insanity so she could be committed to a New York City insane asylum.

Cook says he admires reporting “where you’re not simply asking people questions but doing something in the world and seeing what happens.” But he’s also committed to the idea that reporters themselves can put the claims of politicians and other powerful people to the test. This was the driving idea behind, in particular, the phishing project, which was designed to test Trump’s claims about his team’s security.

Univision has so far made good on its promise to support the Special Projects Desk’s reporting, even if doing so might open up some legal risks. Cook said that the Special Projects Desk has worked closely with people like Gizmodo Media Group EVP and general counsel Lynn Oberlander to ensure that the reporting is done in a way that is “defensible, ethical, and legal.” (Cook, who himself was named in two of the suits that helped bring down Gawker, says he’s used to working in today’s “adverse legal environment.”)

The Special Projects Desk has been particularly Trump-heavy so far, but that isn’t by design: Like most, the group didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the 2016 election, and the president and his team has so far has taken an outsize share of reporters’ attention. The Special Projects Desk wants to change that, particularly by focusing on seats of power like Silicon Valley. “We’ve been very Trump-heavy because that’s where the action is, but there are many other areas of concern that investigative reporting can shine a light on,” Cook said.

POSTED     May 25, 2017, 11:04 a.m.
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