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Wikiworld: the future of investigative journalism

Has Julian Assange’s whistleblower website WikiLeaks set a ‘new normal’ for investigative journalism in the mainstream press? EPA/STR

If you are a crooked corporate mogul, property tycoon or prominent politician, chances are you are sweating a little bit this week. Sure, your millions of secret tax-evading dollars are - for the moment - safe in offshore accounts. But now, a lot more people know exactly where your money is and just how much you’ve been hiding.

In the days and weeks to come, offshore banking schemes worth billions of dollars will be reported on by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), a network of over 38 media organisation and 86 journalists across 46 countries.

Senators in Canada, sons of dictators in Indonesia, and even the deputy Prime Minister of Russia are some of those caught in the spotlight. Major media will dutifully report on the duplicity and, in some cases, the illegality of keeping elite wealth hidden away from government tax departments.

However, the real insight to be had is not about the tax havens, but about the type of journalism which generated these headlines. It shows us the future of investigative journalism at a time when the survival of journalism is being questioned.

Muckraking headlines from collaborative investigations that span the globe and are based on massive data leaks represent a new chapter of investigative journalism. After WikiLeaks, this is becoming the new normal and mainstream media and the public should come to embrace it.

The tax haven story started when a mysterious hard drive was anonymously mailed to Australian investigative journalist Gerard Ryle, now ICIJ director. The data, and the stories within them, were too complex for one paper to decipher and too diverse to be understood from one continent.

Ryle shared the data with the non-profit ICIJ, which gathered a collaborative working group of over 80 journalists worldwide. These loosely networked journalists, working from an anonymous leak, decoded tomes of data in secret, and slowly patched together the narratives needed to make news.

They took their time to dig deep - deeper (and longer) than editors with newspaper deadlines can allow nowadays. This “slow journalism” was uniquely crowd-sourced across the globe, funded by donation, and reliant on the leaked data. It represents the future of investigative journalism that allows complex but hard hitting stories to see print.

Although WikiLeaks set a radical precedent for digital leaks and decentralised investigation, these processes are being taken up by reputable journalists, and represent the future of investigative journalism in times of shrinking budgets.

This new journalism comes at a time when low advertising revenue and shrinking subscription rates threaten hard-hitting investigative journalism. Often, the internet is blamed for this demise. The online abundance of free information, unverified content and unedited analysis smothers the economic life out the fourth estate.

As the logic goes, investigative journalism becomes the first line item to be cut from media companies caught in the downward financial spiral. Even worse, societies will realise too late that the editorialised-yet-objective “paper of record” was an irreplaceable check on power.

Fortunately, claims of journalism’s demise do not add up in practice. Speaking plainly, newspapers are not dying. While North American and Australian newspapers are bleeding subscribers and ad dollars, their counterparts in Brazil, China, India, and Japan are boasting the highest subscription rates they have known, and their profits continue to grow. Journalism, including the old-fashioned subscription-supported type, continues along.

At the same time, radical new ways of carrying out investigative journalism are emerging. A new form of data-driven, collaborative journalism is proving effective. It relies on a different set of rules than newspapers competing to sell classifieds.

Big data and digital leaks have combined with decentralised analysis to create a new way to report the news. WikiLeaks was arguably the first experiment into this brave new world of decentralised, data-driven journalism - and its results were mixed.

But make no mistake of the importance of WikiLeaks to traditional journalists. After WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs (exposing human rights abuses and uncounted civilian deaths in Iraq) and less than 1% of US state department diplomatic cables, New York Times stories relied on WikiLeaks documents in 50 of the first 100 days of 2011. And that was before WikiLeaks’ major media partner, The Guardian, accidentally made the entire set of diplomatic cables available in full.

In 2012, two of the top five global headlines measured through Google Analytics depended on leaks that went viral online before boomeranging back to be “reported” by major media outlets.

Uncovering the financial corruption in high places that is being reported across the globe this week is another example of how the new journalism works. Ostensibly, WikiLeaks had nothing to do with the global tax evasion leak. However, the stories of tax fraud would not be in print without the WikiLeaks model showing what was possible.

The current tax haven headlines, and the future of investigative journalism, owe much to a new breed of the digital muckrakers - heads down in data - and their relentless exposure of secret evils.

Acclaimed papers of record and the online press must exploit this muckraking for all its worth, while supporting its validity as a tool of investigative news making. The genie of radical transparency, digital leaks and networked journalism will not be put back in its bottle, so we need to ensure it is put to good use.

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