October 21, 2021

When a new investigation drops bearing the name of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the world generally pays attention.

The ICIJ’s sweeping projects have spanned continents and dealt with vast document sets with a scope so broad — in many cases, tens of millions of records — they’re hard to conceptualize. The nonprofit’s projects are commonly referenced in the shorthand of their file troves: the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers and the FinCEN Files.

In early October, the group premiered its latest investigation: the Pandora Papers, a look at the world of offshore finance and the people — and countries — who suffer when illicit money goes offshore. More than 11.9 million financial records were secured in the Pandora Papers. Ensuing stories took readers behind the scenes of a financial company in South Dakota with international clients and an Ohio nursing home — the organizations and the humans behind the data.

Journalists say the documents are just part of the reporting process. That’s where the journey begins.

How does ICIJ work?

People hold a banner in Arabic that reads: “Pandora (Papers) exposed you,” during a protest in front of the Central Bank in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Dozens of Lebanese gathered outside a bank in Beirut’s downtown demanding that they be allowed to withdraw their deposits that have been blocked amid Lebanon’s severe financial and economic crisis. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

When Gerard Ryle was first hired to lead the ICIJ 10 years ago, the organization looked a lot different.

“At that stage, the ICIJ was basically four full-time people in a basement in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Our budget was about $600,000. You couldn’t really do much with it.”

The ICIJ was started by investigative journalist Charles Lewis in 1997 as a “network for journalists” and part of the Center for Public Integrity. But when Ryle was brought on board, he saw the potential of a changed model. What if the ICIJ found great global stories and partnered with media organizations across the world? The goal was a barter — the ICIJ would trade its documents and data resources for use of news organizations’ reporters and eventual publication of the end product.

The mission wasn’t always easily accomplished. ICIJ achieved much of its early success through experimenting. One important tenet Ryle learned over time was to approach reporters with a potential story rather than editors.

“I learned from trial and error that you don’t go to bosses with an idea because their reaction was, ‘We don’t need this, we’ll never want this,’” Ryle said. “But when you go to a reporter with a story, you get a very different reaction. The reporter wants the story, and therefore they will do the advocacy for you with the organization.”

ICIJ had its “big breakthrough” in 2013, according to Ryle, with the publication of “Offshore Leaks.” It was a test of the nonprofit’s model. Could they get investigative reporters, “lone wolves” by nature, to work together and share their reporting with a group?

“You are trying to teach these bunch of secretive people around the world to do the opposite of what they have been doing all their lives, which is to share,” Ryle said. “Our model is that we’ll invite you into one of these projects, but whatever you see, you’ve got to share with everybody in the group.”

Ryle had what now seems like a quaint idea: set up document clusters in global hubs and have reporters fly in and go through the papers there. That didn’t work, he said. It was clear that cloud-based technology was a necessity to easily share information remotely.

“We had no money and no resources, so how do you do this?” he said. “Once we showed the model could work, we just became more sophisticated.”

That led the ICIJ to build an online newsroom based on open-source software designed for a dating site and a search system originally built for librarians. Their technology can ingest millions of documents and share them with reporters across the world.

That’s when the stories start to emerge from patterns unearthed within the records.

How does the story process work?

University student protesters dressed as penguins demonstrate against the effects of a potential mining project on the environment and Humboldt penguins, outside La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. A criminal investigation has been opened related to the sale of a mining project owned by the family of Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, after the leader was named in the Pandora Papers. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper first learned about the Pandora Papers over a lunch meeting with Ryle in the early winter of 2020.

It only took one sentence for Cenziper’s interest to be piqued. “This is much bigger than the Panama Papers,” Ryle told her. That — and the assurance that there were Americans named in the documents — was enough.

Ryle had only received the documents shortly before meeting with Cenziper. ICIJ’s reporters were occupied. The only person left was him. He spent his Christmas break poring through the records and emerged convinced of their importance, bearing a 3,000-word memo to prove it.

For Cenziper, an experienced investigative journalist with a Pulitzer under her belt, the idea of 11.9 million records was almost impossible to grasp.

“How do you go through 11.9 million documents, even with the 600 journalists that are working on this project?” she said. “It’s like a LexisNexis search on steroids.”

The first obstacle was figuring out how to search the documents to get the best results. Once a name was found, there were still so many questions to answer: Who are they? What’s their background? When did they set up this offshore account? What would the offshore provider have known about the person’s background?

But this was not simply a story of financials. This was a tale of real people who were being harmed by money moving offshore.

“For the Washington Post team, we very much early on decided that this could not just be a story about wealthy people moving their money offshore,” Cenziper said. “That story has been told before, and it’s been told well. We really wanted to show the hurt that can be caused when illicit wealth is moved offshore.”

Cenziper is also a professor at Northwestern University, where she tells her students that sources rarely meet reporters in a parking garage with secret documents gifted “with a red bow on top.” But it was almost like that in the case of the Pandora Papers, give or take the hours spent combing through the records looking for anything that might help.

“I call it wading in the muck,” Cenziper said. “But you’re doing it on your gut instinct. And you’re doing it because you want to do your due diligence. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

When ICIJ partners with news organizations, at least two things are required: Reporters must share what they see with the team and stories must be published on the same day.

“We don’t decide what’s important for your country and what’s not important,” Ryle said.

The organization is realistic about who will partner with whom. In general, they aim to find a TV news program, a newspaper and a radio station. But Ryle knows The New York Times and The Washington Post will probably never share information. In the case of the Pandora Papers, ICIJ secured The Washington Post, Frontline PBS and the Miami Herald, among other international partners.

“They were all sharing,” Ryle said, “which is quite a feat.”

What works and what doesn’t?

An exterior view of 56-60 Conduit Street in the Mayfair district of London, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. The Pandora Papers linked the property to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

While Ryle is enthusiastic about ICIJ’s model, he doesn’t see it as the future of all of journalism. It’s more like the future of one kind of journalism.

“It doesn’t work for every story,” he said. “You have to pick the right topic. But when it does work, it works spectacularly well.”

Those stories need to be global in nature, he said, and deal with broader issues like the environment or food security or medicine. It can’t be one issue happening in one country.

But he worries that ICIJ is the victim of its own success. As an independent nonprofit — ICIJ officially split from the Center for Public Integrity in 2017 — that has achieved a level of fame within the industry, funders assume ICIJ is in a better financial state than it is. The nonprofit continually stretches its budget on ambitious projects. Ryle has to let go of some of the freelancers who worked on the Pandora Papers.

“Everyone thinks we are in this great position, because we do these high-profile projects,” he said. “I keep trying to make the point to our funders, ‘Can you imagine what we would do if we were properly funded?’”

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Elizabeth Djinis is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @djinisinabottle or email her at elizabeth@grafonwritingco.com.
Elizabeth Djinis

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