The Columbia Journalism Review has a really interesting piece up about WikiLeaks’s latest news coup and how it all came to pass. WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, is a famously independent and skittish entity, and has never to my knowledge coordinated with a news organization. So how exactly did three major news publications publish simultaneous in-depth reports using WikiLeaks’s information?
Apparently, it wasn’t Assange’s idea–at least, Assange didn’t spearhead it. Nick Davies, a senior contributor to The Guardian, was intrigued by exposure of Bradley Manning, who claimed to have passed WikiLeaks boatloads of information. Davies took it upon himself to track down Assange, a notoriously transient and mysterious fellow, to see if there might be a news story in all those leaked documents. The two finally met up at a cafe in Brussels to chat about the possibilities of the documents.
It was, however, Assange’s idea to rope in three publications–The Guardian (UK), the New York Times, and Germany’s Der Spiegel–with an enforced embargo, a date before which nothing would be published. (You might notice no online-only publications were included–Assange is not very respectful of digital journalism.) A few top-level editors from the three publications agreed on a publish date, and the New York Times and Der Spiegel surreptitiously flew a few of their top reporters out to London to work from The Guardian‘s offices.
Those offices became more like a Situation Room than a typical newsroom; tucked away on a floor used by advertisers, away from the prying, curious eyes of journalists, those select few reporters worked furiously to analyze and triage the documents. And secrecy was paramount: The reporters weren’t allowed to talk on the phone, for fear of being intercepted. Says John Goetz, a reporter for Der Spiegel: “You couldn’t write emails, and people were talking about encrypted phones.”
The reporters divided up some of the tasks, as there simply was not enough time or manpower to independently research tens of thousands of documents in a few short weeks. Davies calls that collaboration “really rather heartwarming, and unusual.”
Interestingly, the reporters talk about Assange as a source, not a partner–WikiLeaks provided the raw materials, but the reporters took on the task of research, verification, and editing. The reporters actually seem a little offended that Assange acted as if the four organizations–the three news outlets and WikiLeaks–were partners.
It’s a great read, especially if you want a closer look at how a major news story (and a very interesting one at that) is negotiated by some of the top news publications in the world.