The Panama Papers involved 300 journalists working at more than 100 media properties but, at least for the Miami Herald, it was a local news project.
“For south Florida and Miami, the Panama Papers is a local story,” said Casey Frank,
senior editor for investigations at the Herald. “It’s about foreign money gushing in and distorting the real estate market. Down here it’s not something that’s theoretical; it’s real.”
The Herald was one of several United States-based news sites involved in the project, which delved into the 40 years of data leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama that specializes in the creation of shell companies.
It took a year to sift through the data, with collaboration from journalists in dozens of countries and, while the Panama Papers project was not the first inter-news agency collaboration, it may be the largest ever in terms of scale.
Talking with some of those media partners, one learns pretty quickly that a project of that size requires patience and forethought, and that the implications for the future of the industry may be significant.
‘The Right Circumstances’
The project began with a data leak and that, according to Gerard Ryle, was the lynchpin that made the collaboration possible.
Ryle, who leads the staff at the Washington D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and was a project manager for the Panama Papers, is excited about what the project might mean for the future of journalism, but he’s also a realist.
“The important thing is that this is not a magic bullet for journalism,” he said. “It’s just another way of working.”
Ryle said it was a matter of having “the right circumstances”—a data set that was both international and able to be localized and, perhaps most importantly, the right collaborators,
“You’ve got to invite the right people on board,” Ryle said. “You’ve got to invite people who are willing to play by the rules that you’ve set.”
Overseas, that meant the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which worked with the ICIJ from the beginning, along with media properties like Alalam Aljadeed in Iraq, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, Confidencial in Nicaragua, Falter in Austria, Haaretz in Israel and many, many others.
In the United States, the Miami Herald was one of several McClatchy-owned properties involved in the project plus the New York Times, a team from Columbia University’s school of journalism, Fusion, and Univision.
Frank at the Miami Herald came into the project “a bit late” by his own admission, less than four months before the results of the reportage were released.
“It sounded a little bit crazy, kind of unwieldy,” he said. “Deadlines were set, they weren’t set by us, rules were set and they weren’t set by us. I would have bet that embargoes would have been broken, that deadlines wouldn’t have been met.”
Cheryl Carpenter left her job as the managing editor at the Charlotte Observer to run McClatchy’s Washington D.C. bureau and was immediately saddled with managing a team of three reporters working on the Panama Papers.
She, too, was daunted by the sheer size of the project.
“I didn’t fully grasp the whole gravity of it,” she said. “I knew pretty quickly that it was a daunting project, but I didn’t fully grasp exactly how big it could be.”
Ryle said the key was to set rules and deadlines but not be too restrictive, to allow every media partner to create what made sense for each market.
“We don’t tell the media partners what to report or how to report, or even what to think,” he said. “Editorial decisions rested within each organization.”
That meant local, national and international impact once stories stemming from the data began to get published: The Icelandic president stepped down; new rules governing money laundering were proposed in the European Union; there was some increased scrutiny of public officials in Africa; and President Barack Obama commented on the problem of “tax avoidance.”
“There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally, is a huge problem,” Obama said in April, though the U.S. Department of Justice was cautious in its initial response.
“While we cannot comment on the specifics of these alleged documents, the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously all credible allegations of high level, foreign corruption that might have a link to the United States or the U.S. financial system,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a release.
In Miami, it meant exposing the role foreign money in local real estate markets.
“Real estate is kind of what makes Florida go,” Frank said. “It’s the engine for our economy. Making this story real for our readers was really easy.”
At the Herald, that ability to localize the data was what made the project worthwhile. Frank noted that “the amount of news hole these days that is devoted to international news has shrunk dramatically.”
He said there is a “tendency to think in terms of print, or at least in terms of newshole” when deciding “how much staff you can throw at a particular project.”
Carpenter, and the predecessor from whom she inherited the project, entrusted the work to three Washington-D.C. based journalists: Tim Johnson, Kevin G. Hall and Marisa Taylor.
Frank, on the other hand, said several individuals were asked to take it on, and though all were experienced, talented journalists, there wasn’t a perfect fit until the Herald’s real estate reporter jumped in.
While many news organizations have adopted a “hyper-local” mantra, Panama Papers collaborator the New York Times recently told readers to expect less local-to-New York City news.
“What exactly does this mean for readers? Fewer stories about individual murders, assaults or routine crimes,” public editor Liz Spayd wrote in August. “Fewer stories about lawsuits and criminal cases, or about legislation wending through Albany. And it will mean fewer stories about fires in the Bronx.”
That might mean more resources devoted to international investigative projects like the Panama Papers, but that’s not necessarily the case at many metro news organizations around the country.
“There are a lot of places where it wouldn’t have worked,” Frank said.
Secrecy Amid Open Communication
“You can, surprise surprise, get journalists to collaborate,” Ryle said, though he noted that great care was taken to keep that collaboration non-competitive.
For example, if one news organization was invited to participate the ICIJ made sure not to invite that company’s direct rival.
Collaboration across continents was aided by the creation of a virtual newsroom but, with so many disparate news agencies working off of the same data set that meant handing off good news tips to people you never met.
Carpenter said her team had to grow accustomed to “sharing insights with journalists across the globe knowing that they would never get credit for it, knowing they were contributing to the greater good.”
“That, to me, was the distinction of this project,” she said.
Investigative news pieces are built on context, Carpenter said, and you can’t have context without communication.
“The context of the Panama Papers was greatly enriched by all those journalists talking about it,” she said.
For Frank at the Herald, that constant communication was important but made more difficult by the necessary secrecy.
“There was constant daily sharing of information, made more complicated by the fact that there was extreme secrecy,” he said. “We had to report the story without really telling people what the story was.”
But, as Ryle said, “Journalists don’t like the thought that you’re holding back anything from them.” So there needed to be a balance between secrecy and openness—nobody wants to get scooped but you can’t have too much overlap.
“It was weird and constricting before publication,” Frank said. “We couldn’t discuss internally, with the person sitting at the next desk, what the project was about. There were layers of security. It was almost like being in the CIA.”
For Ryle, the fact that the whole thing was kept under wraps was a success in itself.
“Any of these organizations could have broken the pact at any point, and run with the story,” he said. “What was great is, that no one leaked the leak, which I think is fantastic. We kind of instilled the belief that we’re all in this together.”
The secrecy was serious. Ryle said he wasn’t just concerned with organizations choosing to pull the curtain back before the consortium was ready, but with individuals talking to coworkers, spouses, friends in the industry or in government.
“We all know that nothing is secure,” he said. “The biggest vulnerability is the people.”
That meant you had to report on stories without sharing what you were reporting on with your sources.
Frank described the project as “chipping away at a rock pile that, by rule, wasn’t coming out for another nine months.”
He said it was “crucial that the various publications not be tripping over each other,” and so each organization needed to know their role within the larger whole.
“I don’t always give props to the people at the top of the pyramid,” Frank said. “I have to give a whole lot of credit to the consortium. The way they handled it, managed it. It was remarkable the way it was achieved.”
“In the end, all the tumblers clicked,” he said.
As for whether or not the Panama Papers project is easily replicable, Ryle would only say that “We’ll continue to build out the model. It’s very important for us to have the right stories.”
There’s no exact count of how many stories resulted from the Panama Papers project—there are still works being released by media partners and the ICIJ has since made the database publicly accessible at panamapapers.icij.org, providing a search engine to help geographically parse out the data.
The shape the next collaboration of this size takes will depend, Ryle said, on the data which he said must be “intensely global and intensely local,” and “suited to this collaboration model.”
To be sure, the Panama Papers is not the first time news organizations have collaborated. ICIJ is, by its own model, a consortium of journalists.
Both Frank and Carpenter, as employees of a large media conglomerate, have worked on collaborative projects before.
“We’ve been moving in this way for some time,” Frank said. “What it underscored to us was that there is a real advantage in looking to work cooperatively with other news organizations.”
Though, as Carpenter said, “collaboration in general is always a challenge” the Panama Papers seems to have been a proof of concept, verification that large-scale collaborative investigative projects can work in disparate markets.
“I think we’ll see more efforts like that,” Fran said. “The lesson is, in some ways we shouldn’t be competing with each other.”
“I think you get so much more than you give on this,” Carpenter said, calling the project “a small miracle.”
When it comes to what Carpenter called “the public service piece,” collaboration among news sources is beneficial, though it’s not always easy.
“We did struggle with, ‘While we’re giving to the greater good here how are we helping our own agenda?’” she said. “While this collaboration was an extraordinary one because of its global reach, there have been other collaborations. I don’t think this is the first collaboration ever, and I think its success in terms of the impact it had across the globe proves the point that these are worth the struggle and the difficulties.”
Ryle said the primary takeaway is that, “It makes sense, in this current climate, to share.”
“What we’ve proven here is that the traditional media have amazing audiences still,” he said. “Even though the business model is broken, the eyes on their stories are growing because of digital, they just haven’t figured out how to monetize that.”
Perhaps it’s an irony that the most immediate implications for the ICIJ, which struggled to keep the collaboration noncompetitive, may be some imitators building on the ICIJ’s success.
“There’s going to be more (organizations) like ICIJ,” Ryle said. “For us, it’s going to be more competition. That’s good—competition is flattery as far as I’m concerned.”
Panama Papers Reporting Partners
ABC Color, Paraguay
Al Nahar TV, Egypt
Alalam Aljadeed, Iraq
amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, South Africa
ANCIR, South Africa
BBC Panorama, United Kingdom
El Trece, Argentina
Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, Pakistan
Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Puerto Rico
Charlotte Observer, United States
Columbia University, United States
Connectas, Colombia / Panama
Consejo de Redacción, Colombia
Daily Monitor, Uganda
Daily Nation, Kenya
DataBaseAR, Costa Rica
De Tijd, Belgium
Dépêches du Mali, Mali
L’Economiste du Faso, Burkina Faso
Efecto Cocuyo, Venezuela
El Comercio, Ecuador
El Confidencial, España
El Faro, El Salvador
El Universo, Ecuador
Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Guardian, United Kingdom
Haaretz (The Marker), Israel
Het Financiiele Dagblad, Netherlands
ICIJ, United States
IDL Reporteros, Peru
Indian Express, India
Korea Center for Investigative Journalism/Newstapa, South Korea
Kyiv Post, Ukraine
Kyodo News, Japan
La Nación, Argentina
La Prensa, Panama
La Sexta, Spain
Le Desk, Morocco
Le Matin Dimanche, Switzerland
Le Monde, France
Le Soir, Belgium
McClatchy, United States
Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism, Botswana
Novaya Gazeta, Russia
O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil
OCCRP, Eastern Europe
Ojo Público, Peru
Pagina 12, Argentina
El Pitazo, Venezuela
Poderopedia Venezuela, Venezuela
Premium Times, Nigeria
Premières Lignes, France
Protagon, Greece, Cyprus
Radio AmmanNET, Jordan
Radio NZ, New Zealand
Rede TV, Brazil
Reykjavík Media, Iceland
Rozana FM, Syria
Semanario Universidad, Costa Rica
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany
The Asahi Shimbun, Japan
The Australian Financial Review, Australia
The Irish Times, Ireland
The Malta Independent, Malta
The Miami Herald, United States
The Namibian, Namibia
The New York Times, United States
The Washington Post, United States
Times of Malta, Malta
Toronto Star, Canada
Trinidad Express, Trinidad and Tobago
TVI24 (Portugal), Portugal
TVNZ, New Zealand
Univisión, United States
VOA Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
České centrum pro investigativní žurnalistiku (CCIZ), Czech Republic