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Stories of collaboration: Scouring the Paradise Papers, with the help of almost 400 new friends

New York Times reporter Mike Forsythe reveals what it's like to work on a global investigation like the Paradise Papers.

Michael Forsythe is an investigative reporter with The New York Times. He worked on ICIJ’s most recent project, Paradise Papers, and here reflects on what it was like to collaborate across the world.

In 2016, the release of the Panama Papers caused a huge sensation across the globe, exposing a hidden world of wealth held offshore. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists brought together hundreds of reporters from around the world to examine the millions of documents that were leaked to two reporters, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. For their work, the ICIJ won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.

The New York Times was not part of that team. Like many reporters here, I spent a lot of time scrambling to make sense of what the ICIJ had uncovered, writing follow-on stories. Breathing fumes.

Last year, with the publication of the Paradise Papers — an extensive leak of documents primarily from a Bermudan law firm — we were on the inside. Working under Rebecca Corbett, The Times’s investigations editor, Mike McIntire, Jesse Drucker, Scott Shane and I joined up with close to 400 reporters around the world, spending much of 2017 sifting through some of the more than 13 million files.

It was exciting. But it was also unnerving.

Early on, just as the first documents were becoming searchable through the ICIJ’s sophisticated in-house system, it became apparent just how much we would have to relearn journalistic habits acquired over decades of reporting.

We would have to learn how to share.

By late February, a team of journalists from The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, the ICIJ and other organizations were scouring documents, looking for any connections to the new Trump cabinet, one of several reporting initiatives. But the documents from Appleby — a white-shoe law firm — often led us to water but didn’t let us drink. Tidbits of evidence in the documents frequently had to be supplemented by a lot of outside reporting, some of it building on our own proprietary reporting.

Jesse, for example, is one of The Times’s lead reporters reporting on the business dealings of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. He brought a wealth of experience to a team of strangers.

But a big planning meeting at the Süddeutsche Zeitung headquarters in Munich, which Mike McIntire and Jesse attended, helped to alter the chemistry. Competitors became comrades.

Some of the best stories, such as the report about Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr.’s investment in a shipping company with business ties to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s son-in-law, came courtesy of our partners. The I.C.I.J. reporter Sasha Chavkin spent months poring through the files to spot that connection.

Looking through millions of documents in search of stories is no easy task, and it led us down plenty of rabbit holes that ended up nowhere. There are 1,615 hits for the keyword “Trump” in the Paradise Papers.

One of the first results is the name of a company: Trump Treasure Limited. It was set up by the family of Vincent Lo, a tycoon who was part of a group of Hong Kong billionaires who invested in one of Mr. Trump’s properties in New York, helping to rescue him from the verge of bankruptcy. The Hong Kong businessmen sold the property for $1.76 billion in 2005, prompting a $1 billion lawsuit from Mr. Trump, who said he could have sold it for more.

Two years later, with the lawsuit continuing, “Trump Treasure Limited” was formed.

Was it some vehicle to compensate Mr. Trump? It held a huge mortgage in Hong Kong and was owned by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. But no ICIJ leak unmasked the owners of that offshore entity. Could it be Mr. Trump himself?

The reality was much less than met the eye. In Beijing, the Times reporter Keith Bradsher asked Mr. Lo about the company, and he expressed a level of surprise and puzzlement that appeared genuine. Some more digging and the prosaic truth emerged: The name was randomly chosen from a list of shell company names and was used to invest in Hong Kong real estate.

But dead ends are par for the course in investigative journalism. And amid all the billing statements, spreadsheets and mind-numbing prospectuses, some big stories emerged. The Times and its new partners will publish them throughout the week.

This article was first published on The New York Times.

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