From the Panama Papers to Facebook, cooperation is increasingly vital
It has been a very effective week for journalism; the prime minister of Iceland has gone, David Cameron has been forced into an embarrassing volte face on how he benefited from offshore tax shelters, and China had to block parts of the internet it was not already blocking in case citizens read about the corruption of business leaders and officials who were involved in the same scandal. The political and financial fallout from what has become known as the Panama Papers is continuing to dominate the global news agenda.
For news nerds the dynamics of the story proved equally fascinating. The leak of information from a law firm called Mossack Fonseca first came to German news organisation Suddeutsche Zeitung from an anonymous whistleblower but was subsequently dispersed via the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), into the hands of over 100 journalists in different organisations (including the Guardian, which took a leading role in the reporting). This new model of networked, data-driven investigation is a model journalism as a field can feel exceptionally proud of having developed. It is the correct reportorial response to the kind of globalised bamboozlement Mossack Fonseca and others practise, and demonstrates enormous potential for impact, if and when publishers work together.
And this point is a crucial one for more than just complex investigations. Since the WikiLeaks cables arrived in assorted newsrooms in 2010, and even through the incredibly sensitive material in the NSA leaks, news organisations now have to collaborate if they are going to participate in some of the largest stories they will ever cover. It is endemic in the DNA of most newsrooms to be as uncooperative as possible. Indeed after the Panama Papers broke as news, the lack of material response from some major news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times was ascribed to their annoyance at not being included in the reporting. Although those organisations suggested it was actually more about verification of someone else’s scoop, the assumption of a competitive gene is still embedded in news culture.
However this is likely to change quickly, in areas besides newsgathering. This is also an important time for journalism organisations in terms of news distribution. In San Francisco, the Facebook developer conference F8 will take two days this week to talk about new developments at the social network, many of which will be of acute interest to news publishers. Facebook’s Instant Article access is being opened to all journalists and not just selected publishers. Its CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to his own live video channel last week (hosted by BuzzFeed) to talk about the expansion of access to the streaming service and what its strengths are.
For the first time, a technology developer conference will have more bearing on how we do journalism than at any point since the launch of the iPhone (in that case journalists observed and admired without having much conception of how radically the device would affect their work). “Journalism” is just one not particularly commercial segment within the broadening communications ecosystem.
Newsrooms might privately share some information about their experiences with Facebook or Google or other publishers, but only on an ad hoc and informal basis. Now we are facing a real test of what this new relationship actually means, and it puts journalism organisations in the uncomfortable position of disclosing perhaps more than they would like to.
After Zuckerberg’s live appearance on BuzzFeed last week to talk about his new product, technology site Re/Code reported that BuzzFeed and other publishers were being paid by Facebook to promote live video – a story confirmed by BuzzFeed at the bottom of a lengthy article about the same product. There are other broadcasters and news organisations who have not disclosed similar relationships.
This is nothing new, or intrinsically wrong. Publishers (including the Guardian) have in the past struck advertising search deals with companies like Yahoo and Google, they often negotiate exclusive deals which give them access to new products (like the Apple App store). If competitive advantage now rests in a close co-operation with platforms and technologies, and it looks as though it does, then as journalists we need to be more open about disclosing those terms of engagement. Facebook articles and the Panama Papers are conceptually quite a long way apart, but in terms of how we work together co-operatively, and the benefit of transparency applied to transactions, they are maybe much closer than we might think.