April 4, 2016

The latest collaborative investigation from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists includes a lot of ingredients. Among them:

  • 11.5 million records
  • 2.6 terabytes of data
  • More than 370 journalists in more than 80 countries at more than 100 media organizations

The Panama Papers, which started publishing Sunday, is the biggest collaboration so far from the consortium, a nonprofit network of based in Washington, D.C. So how do you corral that many journalists from that many organizations for an investigation of this size?

“It’s something that has taken us a long time to learn,” said Mike Hudson, a senior editor at ICIJ.

ICIJ previously brought together journalists and news organizations for Evicted and abandoned: The World Bank’s Broken Promise to the Poor, and Offshore Leaks, among others. Along the way, people involved have figured out some necessary ingredients to make all that collaborating work. They include some characteristics that may sound familiar if you spend any time trying to teach young children to be tolerable in public:

The ability to share

The news organizations and journalists involved have to be willing to collaborate, Hudson said. Journalists involved with the Panama Papers shared sources, transcripts and videos of interviews as they swapped ideas.

“That’s what really makes it go,” he said.

They also had to understand that more than 100 news organizations publishing at the same time wouldn’t necessarily mean less audience for each.

“I think that the publishing together creates a critical mass,” Hudson said, “just this incredible firestorm of attention.”

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Patience and teamwork

Hudson spent six months on this project, but other journalists involved spent up to a year.

“It really depends on the ability of the journalists who are part of the collaboration to have things that journalists aren’t known for — a propensity for teamwork and patience.”

Both those things also matter considering that everyone involved agrees to publish at the same time. The benefit, Hudson said, is then you’re not so worried about getting scooped.

The ability to see the big picture

When Süddeutsche Zeitung was leaked the raw data that eventually became the Panama Papers, the German news organization came to ICIJ to collaborate.

“They knew that they could do a great job with it, but that it would be a better and even more important story if they worked with other partners,” Hudson said.

A place to gather

Working together helps journalists dig up more information, but how do they collaborate?

Panama Papers journalists worked together in password-secure encrypted collaborative forums, “like a private Facebook for journalists,” Hudson said.

Andy Greenberg wrote about the Panama Papers for WIRED and detailed how journalists communicated both online and in person.

The 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.

A willingness to devote the resources

ICIJ works on projects for long stretches as part of its mission. But it’s amazing that for-profit news organizations committed resources to a lengthy investigation, he said.

Panama Papers partners in the U.S. include McClatchy’s D.C. bureau and the Miami Herald, as well as Fusion. One struggle is that American news organizations haven’t always been that excited about collaboration.

“I understand that,” Hudson said. “It’s a whole new thing.”

Pulling it all together

“We’re not the boss of everyone,” Hudson said of ICIJ, “but we’re definitely trying to coordinate and make sure that everyone is working together and make sure that people know what other people are doing.”

Difficulties with the project weren’t about people’s willingness to work together, but the complexity of coordinating them all, he said. People managed themselves and worked in small teams within larger groups around topics in the investigation.

The results, Hudson said, show two things: The power of the internet and the power of journalists working together.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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