The learning curve involved in big journalistic collaborations and data projects.
My involvement with ICIJ’s Offshore Tax Havens project began when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists asked our Center in Bucharest to act as a reporting hub – mainly for Eastern Europe.
The role of my two colleagues – Sorin Ozon and Adrian Mogos – and I was not only to search for our own stories but to share data with 28 reporters from Romania, Moldova, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Baltics, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Kosovo, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Belgium and Cambodia.
Journalists from Russia and Greece were separately able to visit Bucharest to use specialized software that had been supplied to us by ICIJ.
Below are some of the difficulties we encountered along the way, bucketed into different categories.
The first problem we all faced was how to understand the more than 200 gigabytes of unstructured data that we had been given access to by ICIJ. What electronic tools did we need and how should we begin our research? I was looking for patterns and relevant stories and not “Person A established Company B” type of unconnected information.
ICIJ had supplied sophisticated data mining software that had been donated by the Australian firm NUIX but I initially found it of little use. My old computer simply could not cope with the size of the data and it crashed nearly once a day.
I was forced to buy a more powerful machine.
I knew other journalists in similar situations would encounter similar difficulties. So, how to find a solution for tens of reporters?
The reporters I had in mind simply did not have access to powerful computers. Nor did they all have elaborate technical skills and specialized computer knowledge. Many were freelancers with few resources to buy expensive new hardware or install new software. Nor did they all have time to dedicate to learning sophisticated processes. The approach had to be simple, but effective.
An added complication was the secretive nature of the project and the need to minimize data exchange in order to protect sources. We initially communicated using encrypted email (PGP) but quickly found that this hindered rather than helped group communication and archive building. Many reporters had never used PGP before and they struggled with the technicalities. Others feared it would simply draw unwanted attention from government agencies and the like.
For the success of this kind of project you must invest trust and share as much data as possible with fellow journalists – not become a bottleneck and jam the research process. It was a lesson I wished we had all learned sooner.
The communication solution arrived in the form of an online secure open-source forum provided by Sebastian Mondial, a colleague from Germany. Documents were either shared through the forum or by using a commercial online file sharing service.
We had to act as if we were part of a part-time virtual newsroom, but we had none of the benefits of a real newsroom.
For both security reasons and because there was a limited supply of the NUIX software, it became our job to do much of the initial research for our colleagues. Thankfully, that ended in late 2012 when an online research tool was introduced by the data journalism manager for the project, our ICIJ colleague Duncan Campbell.
Throughout the process communication was key. Yet it also consumed a lot of time that could have been used chasing the stories.
Then there was the issue of what type of stories to chase.
What makes news in Russia, for instance, is very different from what makes news in America. There was a need to grapple with many different journalistic cultures when it came to deciding what was important and what was not.
And yet we were looking at a global network of people and companies using the offshore world. They were all connected, and so were the stories.
We had the added surprise in one of the countries we covered that a story was refused for publication because the director of a particular newspaper was a friend with the owner of one of the secret companies about to be exposed.
Data collections such as the one supplied by ICIJ are a treasure-trove of information for journalists in Eastern Europe. Access to information is quite a fight, even at the best of times.
But what this unprecedented journalistic collaboration also revealed was the need for professional editors and new editorial platforms to foster in-depth journalism.
The profession editing help we got was key to crafting the stories. But in many of the countries we covered the existing media – even newspapers – had no editorial space for such in-depth pieces. (This is why the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, building on theblacksea.eu reporting blog, is creating an online magazine in English for the Black Sea region as a place to showcase watchdog journalism.)
It was also disappointing to note that many of the offerings were initially rejected. They were not recognized as stories until they were first published in Britain, by The Guardian or by the BBC. Once that happened, news judgments suddenly changed.
I would have liked more time and specialized human resources for an early technical understanding of the data and for choosing the working tools for the group. (To address these issues, at RCIJ we’ve started Sponge, a collaborative media lab involving also groups of coders.)
I feel we would also have all benefited if, during the process, we had been afforded a series of intensive one-week in-person working sessions to compliment the virtual working environment.
We would have liked more time for planning the exact tasks on various phases of the project.
Collaborating with editors and reporters from other countries is a great learning process, especially since ICIJ uses extensive editing, fact-checking and legal screening that might not always be available in our home countries.
Stefan Candea is an ICIJ member and director of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism.