One of the most frequent questions people ask us these days is “How in the world did you get 86 journalists to work together?”
I can understand their puzzlement. Journalists often compete fiercely to scoop each other. When they get a great tip or a unique document they don’t sit and wonder how they can share it with as many of their colleagues around the world as possible.
Many investigative reporters are classic “lone wolves,” working in isolation and extremely protective of their work.
That’s okay, but it would have been a recipe for disaster in the Offshore Leaks investigation.
What we had in front of us was 2.5 million files involving offshore dealings with links to more than 170 countries and territories. Global data on a truly global issue – business dealings and money flows. It became clear very soon that we could not tackle the job effectively from our Washington office or just with the small team of reporters ICIJ initially recruited to analyze the files.
We needed to open up the game as much as possible without compromising the investigation or the sources. It was a risky approach, but we did not see any other way around it.
Last summer, ICIJ member Nicky Hager and I scrolled down the list of 160 ICIJ journalists in more than 60 countries and began to make some choices. It was one of those moments in which having this network of trusted reporters and relationships we have built overtime made a huge difference.
In countries where we didn’t have a member we sought recommendations and checked out the work of potential collaborators. We did not pick journalists based solely on their media affiliation – we were much more interested in choosing the right people, the real diggers and the most trustworthy colleagues. (See, also, How We Chose Our Offshore Reporting Partners).
We also had to say no to some countries and set them aside for later.
By October 2012 the group of reporters working on the project had grown to nearly 40 people. We had sent them lists of names related to their countries and they had started to give us feedback on the potential good leads and stories for their regions. We assigned regional coordinators to work closely with the reporters in the field and we hired one of our members in Spain, Mar Cabra, to train the reporters on how to understand and use the files.
Via skype, email or sometimes in person Mar and the other regional coordinators passed on to the reporters in the field the tips and clues that we had gathered after months of trial and error attempts to wrap our heads around 260 gigabytes of unstructured data.
In turn the reporters in the field provided us first-hand knowledge on who the offshore clients were and what public interest there was to their stories. They also dug locally in court records and other public documents that added much needed context to the investigations.
To facilitate the exchange of information, discoveries and, why not, frustrations, one of our “geek” reporters set up a secure online forum for the team.
Still, we needed to be flexible and adapt, adapt, adapt. What worked great for a German newspaper reporter made no sense for a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan, who had spotty Internet access and many security concerns.
Up to that point it had been the responsibility of the regional coordinators and ICIJ researchers to search the offshore database and share specific documents with the reporters in the field. By December we were experiencing a huge bottleneck because the team grown at a much faster pace than our resources to service them. Some reporters were starting to lose interest in the story because we couldn’t deliver the files to them fast enough.
We needed to make another tough decision if we were to keep the momentum going and reporters motivated. In less than two weeks, a programmer in the UK created a secure online interface that allowed reporters to do their searches remotely. It was a crucial breakthrough at a crucial time as we were just three months away from publication.
Before joining the project, reporters and their media organizations agreed in writing that they would not share the files with third parties, that they would respect the story embargoes and that they would be team players. It is remarkable how seriously they took their commitments.
Beyond the collaboration tools and the technology we used, we believe it was the human relationships –between coordinators and reporters and among reporters in the field – that served us best. That is not to say that the work was “drama free.” It never is when you are reporting across languages, time zones and cultures (even journalistic cultures).
ICIJ director Gerard Ryle told us early on that the key to the success of the investigation was that we kept the team together, no matter the difficulties.
At last count we are working with more than 90 reporters in some 47 countries. And we are getting ready for more collaborative reporting in countries we haven’t yet touched.
In a way, this might be just the beginning.
Reporters interested in partnering with ICIJ can get in touch via email@example.com. We are receiving many requests, so thanks in advance for your patience.