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Panama Papers show the value of newsroom collaboration

By David Uberti, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on April 5, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

In early 2015, an anonymous source began forwarding German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung encrypted files from a Panamanian law firm specializing in offshore companies. The trove of documents kept growing, and eventually numbered in the millions. Seeking help to break down all the data, the Munich-based daily contacted a small investigative outfit in Washington that specializes in global analyses. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists quickly organized nearly 400 journalists across 80 countries to jump on the story. 

The fruits of ICIJ’s labor since then became clear on Sunday, when it orchestrated the mass publication of a global leak investigation through more than 100 partners. The “Panama Papers” collectively reveal how that Panamanian firm aided global elites in sheltering wealth through offshore tax havens. Stories kept pouring out on Monday as governments began to respond. Spanish prosecutors have reportedly launched a money laundering probe, the Icelandic prime minister is fending off calls for his resignation, and China appears to be censoring coverage of those implicated. 

The project is a testament to ICIJ’s partnership model, which aims to maximize impact through inclusive global collaboration. Media partners around the world localized the Panama Papers for their respective audiences, while near-simultaneous publication of that work created a critical mass of coverage needed to drive discussion worldwide. Such joint efforts are also more resilient to government or corporate pushback in any particular country.

Global networks of any kind—and financial networks in particular—are inherently difficult for individual news organizations to cover. ICIJ responds with a global network of its own, a much-needed answer for stories that transcend borders and languages. Cash is universal, so it’s fitting that ICIJ attempted to match that ubiquity in order to broaden and deepen the Panama Papers’ impact.

How to maximize impact is the ultimate question for nonprofit investigative outfits. They take the time to dig deep into difficult stories, but a slower publishing schedule typically prevents them from building a large audience on their own. Partners oftentimes want exclusive work, meanwhile, limiting the net benefits of distributing the journalism elsewhere.

Nonprofit newsrooms have devised various models in recent years to address such questions, but few have managed to connect as consistently as ICIJ. A project of The Center for Public Integrity, the organization has become a go-to facilitator for such massive international leaks. Just last year, it organized the team that exposed how Swiss bank HSBC held money for arms dealers, tax dodgers, and other international criminals. 

The organization claims the Panama Papers “is likely the biggest leak of inside information in history”—11.5 million files mentioning 214,000 companies in more than 200 countries. (Edward Snowden chimed in to agree.) ICIJ acted as a sort of central communications hub as it proceeded to share the information with outside partners, as Wired reports:  

ICIJ’s developers then built a two-factor-authentication-protected search engine for the leaked documents, the URL for which they shared via encrypted email with scores of news outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, Fusion, and dozens of foreign-language media outlets. The site even featured a real-time chat system, so that reporters could exchange tips and find translation for documents in languages they couldn’t read. “If you wanted to look into the Brazilian documents, you could find a Brazilian reporter,” says [ICIJ Director Gerard] Ryle. “You could see who was awake and working and communicate openly. We encouraged everyone to tell everyone what they were doing.” The different media outlets eventually held their own in-person meetings, too, in Washington, Munich, London, Johannesburg and Lillehammer, Ryle says.

ICIJ journalists have produced big-picture text and multimedia pieces from the information. National and international media have further upped the pressure, spotlighting offshore connections from powerbrokers in Russiathe United KingdomUkrainePakistan,ArgentinaBrazil, and elsewhere.

This model of promiscuous collaboration and concurrent publication isn’t unique in the nonprofit world. California Watch, a project launched by The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2009, periodically blanketed the state with investigations in newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, and digital outlets. More recently, CIR received funding to essentially turn that model on its head, creating a self-contained platform for both its own reporting and partners’ work. Many other nonprofits, such as ProPublica, typically share work exclusively with partners. 

In an interview with CJR last year, former CPI head Bill Buzenberg highlighted both the promise and difficulty of bringing an ICIJ-type model to the United States:

So many stories aren’t just state stories or local stories. They’re national and international stories. And if you can create a coalition, or a consortium, to tackle it using the same data, you can have a much bigger impact and do a better job. Is it doable? Yes, I believe it’s doable. Is it a lot of work? Yes, it is, and it means giving up some central control in a way, too. I don’t know that American journalists want to work that way.

Only a handful of American-based organizations partnered with ICIJ on the Panama Papers, including McClatchy, Univision, and The Miami Herald. National outlets such as The New York Times and Washington Post—not part of ICIJ’s network—have begun publishing follow-ups.

Despite the lack of initial involvement with American media, the ICIJ-organized wave of stories made it stateside thanks to their collective digital reach. The organization’s model fills a pressing need on the international stage. With the Panama Papers, it should also be commended for the logistical feat of keeping more than 100 newsrooms organized—one is overwhelming enough.

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