How do newsrooms get their news tips? We reviewed over 80 news outlets

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

News tips are a crucial component of investigative journalism, but times have changed from when journalists could rely on the anonymity of landline phone calls and a parking structure rendezvous. Through our work consulting with newsrooms and maintaining the whistleblower platform SecureDrop, we know that many media outlets have gotten that message — but we wanted to put a number on it. How many news organizations let sources know how to submit tips, and how many offer secure channels to send those tips?

We reviewed the websites of over 80 top online news outlets.* We found email and postal mail are still the top ways investigative reporting sites solicit news tips but, taken together, Signal messenger and SecureDrop are now nearly as common.

Some 80 percent of the outlets surveyed specified a contact method for submitting news tips in particular. (Among the remaining 20 percent, many included general contact information; we opted not to record that as a tip page because potential sources with sensitive news tips may hesitate to submit them through unspecified channels.) Just over half of the outlets we surveyed provide an email address to submit news tips, while some 45% offered encrypted communications channels through either Signal or SecureDrop. Individually, Signal and SecureDrop were each offered by about a third of the outlets surveyed.

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While we highly recommend news outlets offer a secure tip method for sources, offering and promoting news tip channels can be a complex endeavor. Martin Shelton, now Principal Researcher at Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote for Source about some of the considerations that journalists and newsrooms must take when opening up a secure channel for public contact.

Freedom of the Press Foundation often consults with news organizations to help them set up secure tips pages in the safest way possible — whether they use Signal, SecureDrop, both, or other options. We encourage any news outlet interested in providing a safer way for sources to contact them to reach out to our digital security training team if you’d like our assistance.

Beyond the differences in what channels an outlet makes available for contact, there's also a wide variation in terms of how those channels are presented. One good example of an informative page offering multiple options is the Los Angeles Times, which relaunched its tipline page last year. (Our Director of Newsroom Digital Security, Harlo Holmes, consulted on that relaunch.) Another notable landing page is The Guardian's, which includes an interactive guide to picking the appropriate channel for the medium of information a source wishes to submit, based on what security guarantees that source requires.

We have attempted to be as complete and consistent as possible when gathering this data, but there are a few caveats to consider.

Most significantly, these statistics reflect tip channels available to the newsroom in general, and so do not capture individual journalists that offer private direct tip channels (such as including an email address and GPG fingerprint in their Twitter bio, or providing a personal Signal number for tips). Those "personal tip lines" are not reflected in these numbers, and doubtless constitute a large fraction of tip channels used by sources.

Second, because there is not an industry consensus on where and how to provide a link to tip line information, it’s possible we’ve missed a relevant page. Some sites, such as Rolling Stone, include a prominent “Send us a tip” link in the header of the page. The Intercept includes “Become a source” at the top level of its site navigation.

In many other cases, though, the tip line information can be hard to find, or most readily found using a search engine. We recommend making them as prominent as possible on your homepage so it doesn’t lead to confusion from potential sources that may be at-risk.

Finally, this information is presented as a snapshot of the moment of its collection, and may not reflect developments after its publication. Please reach out to us if you believe your organization’s data is incorrect.

* Our review included the sites for the 50 top newspapers identified in the Pew State of the News Media survey, as well as the subset of their "digital-native" outlets that engage in investigative reporting, and a small selection of additional notable journalistic outlets, including nonprofit newsrooms, non-newspaper legacy media companies, and wire services.

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