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Jan. 9, 2020, 1:35 p.m.

“We’ve seen hate becoming mainstream”: This news site aims to tie together the intel on extremism

“I’d never want to be in the position of doing like The New York Times style of writing about the Nazi next door who sometimes eats at Applebee’s.”

In 2012, when Nick Martin heard the news that a man named J.T. Ready had murdered four people and killed himself in Arizona, he was stunned.

Martin — then a reporter at Talking Points Memo in New York — knew Ready from college; they’d both gone to Mesa Community College. Ready was president of the College Republicans chapter; Martin was taking journalism classes and working nights at a local newspaper. Once, when Martin was assigned to cover an anti-George W. Bush protest in 2004, he was surprised to see Ready there. He thought it was odd to see a president of the College Republicans protesting a Republican president. (“He thought President Bush was soft on immigration,” Martin said.)

As Martin began covering hate and extremism as a reporter, he’d kept tabs on Ready, who had become a neo-Nazi. He and his friends started doing amateur immigration patrols near the Mexican border, holding up migrants at gunpoint and waiting for Border Patrol to arrive.

Ready’s death brought the issue of hate and extremism close to home for Martin and still fuels his motivation to cover the beat. After years of writing about it for TPM, The Daily Beast, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, he decided to start The Informant, a newsletter and site dedicated to “original reporting and intelligence on hate and extremism in America today.” While any number of outlets were covering pieces of the story, Martin said he didn’t see any one making sense of it and explaining what it all means.

The Informant, hosted on Substack, launched Monday; Martin currently writes and edits the site solo. Its first edition looked into a case of mistaken identity that involved neo-Nazis in Michigan. I spoke with Martin about the site, endless FOIA requests, and bootstrapping a startup. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: Where did the idea for The Informant come from?

Nick Martin: I’ve been covering hate and extremism in some form, off and on, for most of my career. It started back when I was working nights at a mid-sized newspaper in Arizona and I met a neo-Nazi for the first time. His name was J.T. Ready, and it was within the next 10 years — this is 2012 — that J.T. Ready ended up walking into his girlfriend’s house and murdering her, two other people, and an infant in the house before killing himself.

This has been really a motivator for me in terms of covering hate and extremism: seeing what it can do, what it can become, the kind of awful sparks that it can create that lead to death and destruction.

Last year, I was talking with a friend who suggested that I start newsletter on the stuff — there’s really nothing like that out there. I got in touch with the people at Substack and they were really interested.

It took me a while to fully form the idea of what I wanted this publication to be and fully commit to it, because it is a full-time job. But in October of this past year, I made the decision to launch and started laying the groundwork for an announcement in December and a launch in January.

Tameez: Why now?

Martin: We’re seeing bits and pieces of news everywhere about hate and extremism. Sometimes it’s analysis put out by a big think-tank for a nonprofit organization, like the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League. Or it’s a news story or investigation that breaks ground in some publication, like The Huffington Post or Vice, or even a local newspaper somewhere. And for me, there’s never really been a place that takes all this work and ties it together and puts it in one spot for people.

We’re at a critical time in the United States, where we’ve seen hate rearing its head. We’ve seen hate becoming mainstream. We’ve really seen hate standing in a position that it’s never stood in during my career. And I think right now is the time to be covering it. A lot of news organizations have devoted reporters and created beats specifically to cover this, and I want to be a kind of clearinghouse for all this information out there.

Tameez: What do you think is missing from the coverage already out there?

Martin: A couple of things. I think it’s hard to tie all of these dots together. If you’re a casual reader out there, you might see some things here and there about a hate group, or a member of a hate group, or an extremist in some capacity. But being able to understand how all those things tie together is really difficult.

We’ve seen, for instance, publications like ProPublica that have done an amazing job uncovering things about the group Atomwaffen Division. We’ve seen Vice do some amazing work covering a group called The Base. But I think unless you’re in a position like I’m in, being able to tie those two things together and show where they overlap — both ideologically and sometimes in membership — kind of gets missed. So I think that’s I think that’s one big thing we’re missing right now.

I think the other element that we’re missing is showing the humanity in a lot of this. It’s important to know that that there are victims of these groups that are targeted — that this hate has a real-world element to it. It’s not just guys online posting memes — there are real-world victims to this.

I think there’s not enough journalism out there that really centers on the victims of some of this hate. And so that’s something that I’m hoping to bring out more is that human side of it, rather than just kind of writing about abstract monsters in the world. No, I’m writing about human beings.

Tameez: I think about, after of the Boston Marathon bombing, there was that cover story for Rolling Stone that a lot of people criticized as almost painting the guy out to be like a rock star. How do you think about approaching that line when it comes to humanizing people?

Martin: I’d never want to be in the position of doing like The New York Times style of writing about the Nazi next door who sometimes eats at Applebee’s.

I think it’s important to give these groups and these people the right kinds of exposure. It’s important to think in advance about how somebody is going to be portrayed and to really show what their hate and extremism does to people. And that’s where centering the victims or bringing up solutions to some of these problems really comes to bear, because you get to look at the human toll that hate takes without turning these guys into celebrities.

Tameez: What do you think are some of the most detrimental things that affect how people consume news about hate and extremism? Have there been any roadblocks in getting people to understand what it is that you do or the story that you’re trying to tell?

Martin: I’ve gotten these kinds of questions on Twitter, like: “It looks like you’re only covering right-wing extremism. Why aren’t you covering left-wing extremism?” And my response is always that I’m covering hate and extremism that is targeting people based on their race, their gender, their gender identity, their sexuality, their ethnicity, their country of origin — that kind of thing. It’s not so much a left vs. right dynamic as it is who’s being targeted and what’s the nature of the hate there.

We’ve seen murders and assaults from this world of hate that targets people based on their identity. For me, it’s not a left versus right issue. It’s an issue of who’s the target and who’s the victim.

I think it’s important to note that the majority of extremism that we see is coming from the far right. Not mainstream conservatism or anything like that, but these are ideologies that are based on far-right ideas. And again, while there is some left-wing extremism out there, it’s rare and you generally don’t see it focused on somebody’s identity.

Tameez: So how do you take care of yourself as you do this — working and covering stories about hate and extremism?

Martin: The reality is it’s hard not to be consumed by this stuff all the time. Especially now that I’m doing it full time and starting a business that’s focused on this — it’s very difficult to not be at it 24/7.

But I think having friends and loved ones that I can talk to and who understand the subject matter that I’m looking at is very important. And it’s important to have somebody you can turn to and say: “Hey, I’ve been working on this thing and it’s really getting to me.” I think that’s critical.

I’m also a big believer in having hobbies. I think finding time for your hobby, whatever it is, is critical in this kind of work. So often, with some of these groups that I’ve watched over the years, I think, like: I wish that these haters had a hobby that would consume more of their time instead of hate.

And I think it’s a matter of self-care — getting enough sleep, eating the right things, getting exercise. All those sorts of things are key ingredients to making sure the stuff doesn’t get to you. Because it’s very ugly subject matter, and if it can pile up on you very quickly.

Tameez: Do you have a specific detox that you go through?

Martin: I will have, from time to time, a day where I shut off the phone — or least ignore the phone — and shut off the computer, step away from things, and just try to do something else. That’s really my detox: just stepping away from it, whether it’s for 24 hours or 36 hours or whatever I can fit in. I really try to do that.

Tameez: What’s been the hardest or most complex story you’ve had to cover so far?

Martin: The hardest and most taxing story really goes back to that guy, J.T. Ready, because I met him when I was still in college. He and I went to the same community college at the same time. When I found out years later — when I heard the news that he had gone in and killed four people and killed himself — it just hit very close to home.

I still wonder about it to this day. I’ve been filing public records requests with every agency I can think of, from the FBI to local police departments, to just see if there’s something there that law enforcement missed in advance, or that journalists missed in advance, that really could have prevented this from happening. It really weighs heavily on me, and it’s something I still think about quite a bit to this day.

Tameez: Have you gotten responses to your records requests yet?

Martin: I don’t have a count of how many records requests I’ve filed versus what’s come back. But I’ve had a number of agencies that have gotten back to me with records.

Local law enforcement has been the most responsive. The FBI and other federal agencies, I’m still waiting on or I’m appealing, because they would send me records that were like open-source info they had on hand and not actual investigative files. I know from some previous reporting that there were some open investigations on J.T. Ready at the time, and I want those records — I don’t just want news clippings.

So I’m still working at it and still waiting on it. The process is slow going, but I’m going to continue to keep an eye on it, and maybe at some point — I mean, we’re eight years after the fact of these killings — but at some point if there’s news to be found in there, I’d still like to write about it. Whether it’s now or whether it’s five years from now when I finally get some of those records back.

Tameez: What’s the most gratifying part of doing this work?

Martin: When I hear from people who’ve had their lives affected in some kind of positive way. Whether it’s that I’ve done some work that leads to somebody’s arrest or what have you, when they’ve been victimizing somebody.

I had some stories in this past year that involved a militia member in New Mexico. He and his pals were at the border stopping migrants at gunpoint and turning them over to Border Patrol. I found out that he had a previous arrest, and I got the records on that. I found out that, as part of that arrest, the police believed he’d been setting up a scam, basically, to get donations for a child with cancer, and that the police believe those donations were going into this militia guy’s pocket and not to a child with cancer.

After that story was published in The Daily Beast, I had the father of that boy who had been fighting cancer reach out to me and say: “I’ve been trying to track this guy down for years — he’s been using my son’s image and name to raise money, and we’ve never seen a dime of it.” He called the prosecutor’s office that was handling the case, and they added the fraud charge to the case.

Just having written that story in the first place really led to this father getting at least some of the way toward the justice he’s been seeking for years for his son. So it’s stories like that. When the work that you do has a real-world impact and where victims can seek the justice that they deserve.

Tameez: Do you have any advice for young journalists getting into this beat, or anybody who transitioning to this beat in their newsroom?

Martin: I think this is advice for any new beat that somebody starts on but it applies to the hate and extremism beat: File a lot of public records requests. Because you’re going to find stuff in there that that you had no idea that was out there, that nobody had any idea it was out there.

I’d say pick a group in your area and file a records request with local and state law enforcement for any information that they have on that group. It’s a little bit of a fishing expedition, but more times than not, you’re going to come back with stories in there — and it also allows you to see how law enforcement interacts with these groups and how they operate to a certain extent. So that’s how I would start.

I’d also say, if you’re starting on this beat, it’s no joke. You need to take security precautions. You need to go through and get your personal information scrubbed from the internet as much as possible. There are some guides out there that can help journalists with that kind of thing, because these people will come after you. Whether they are harassing you online or getting into real-world harassment, it’s going to happen. Every journalist that I know in this field, every researcher that I know in this field has been harassed or threatened in one way or another. If you start writing on this, it’s going to happen to you.

Tameez: How do you protect yourself?

Martin: I don’t want to get into everything that I do, but there are some great guides out there. One that is put out by a company called IntelTechniques. They have a free workbook online that tells you how to be erase your information from a lot of these people’s search databases. Because the thing that we don’t realize is we go through life and our information just gets sucked up and put online in lots of different ways. And this free workbook really tells you how to get your information off from more than 100 websites that are out there. I can’t recommend that enough.

Tameez: What’s your workflow for the site?

Martin: Some of that I’m still ironing out the details of, but I will be producing one original piece of journalism per week that will come out on Mondays. And it could be in-depth, investigative type piece, it could be a Q&A with somebody, it could be a profile of a particular group or extremist. But that’ll really be the kind of guaranteed thing every Monday, so somebody can look forward to that.

The other days of the week that I publish, I’ll be putting together an intelligence briefing that includes some original work from me. If I get a scoop midweek that I want to put out there, I’ll put it in this intelligence briefing, and it’ll also include summaries and links to articles and analysis around the web that people need to know about in the worlds of hate and extremism.

So it’s going to be a lot of juggling throughout the week. I’m going to be on the phone with people trying to track down documents, trying to track down interviews. But I’m also keeping an eye on Google Alerts, RSS feeds, Twitter feeds. I watch for the latest news in these subjects.

Tameez: Are you hiring?

Martin: It’s just me. I’m bootstrapping this whole thing. I don’t have any investors or grants or anything like that — I’m starting it totally from scratch. If it’s successful enough, I would love to hire people. I think those decisions will be made later in the year or maybe in 2021. We’ll see how things go. Optimistically, I’d love to hire on other people if this really takes off.

Tameez: What’s the business model?

Martin: For the first three months, it’s going to be entirely free. I want people to sign up for the site and for the newsletter. There’s no obligation to pay in the future — I just want to prove that this is a great website and a great newsletter that’s worth people’s time and energy to read, and that it will provide resources for journalists or people in law enforcement and for the general public to really understand this world a lot better.

And then in three months, I’ll set up a way that people can pay to continue getting every issue of the newsletter that I put out. The people who remain on the free list will still get access to those Monday stories, those original pieces of journalism, but the people who want to support this work and believe in the good that it does will be able to pay a little bit per month.

I haven’t set the price point yet, but it’ll be less than $10 to continue getting every single piece of information. And I should say too that this is really a model that Substack, the company that I’m doing this through, has perfected. There are a couple of journalists who’ve seen a lot of success from this very same model, where they build up a list of free subscribers and then ask those subscribers to support the work.

Tameez: Is there anything else you want to add or anything else you think is important to know?

Martin: I should mention that I used to work at Talking Points Memo in New York, and that Josh Marshall has given me a little bit of advice behind the scenes that’s been incredibly helpful. He’s one of the smartest guys in the journalism business and knows how the business side of this operates. He’s just been a great source of advice. He’s not involved in any formal way — there’s no funding or anything that he’s putting forward. It’s just that he gives me some friendly advice every now and then. I think that’s probably worth mentioning too.

Photo of J.T. Ready via Vice.

POSTED     Jan. 9, 2020, 1:35 p.m.
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