The Feature

A stunning scoop landed in my lap. Here’s why we looped in dozens of other newsrooms.

March 28, 2017
German journalists Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, co-authors of the "Panama Papers" investigation, pose on April 7, 2016, in Munich. Photo credit: Christof Stache of AFP via Getty Images.

A year has passed since our Panama Papers investigation shook the world and showed how enormous the impact of collaborative journalism can be. Minutes after we published the first articles online, the story was a trending topic in several countries—despite its quite unlikely origin. No one could believe that a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper I work for, sparked such a massive international story. The name of the newspaper may still be hard to pronounce for most of the world, but the example it set has spurred important, industry changing questions about large-scale collaborations. Even with the undeniable impact of the story, I still hear the same simple question over and over: Why did you share?

I understand the skepticism behind this question (why would a journalist with a sane mind share a scoop like the Panama Papers?). But the truth is that journalism—especially investigative journalism—needs much more radical sharing to thrive in today’s media environment where resources are strapped, distribution is disaggregated, and audiences are dispersed and distracted. We need much more collaboration to hold the powerful to account around the world and in the United States, a point that I wrote about here following the election of Donald Trump. Some stories are simply too big for one news outlet to tackle. We cannot let hubris and competitive paranoia keep us from going after stories with all of our might. Collaborative effort, when smartly considered and meticulously executed, more often than not produces results that far outpace what one organization could produce alone. Just look at the fallout from the Panama Papers.

By the end of 2016, no less than 79 investigations in roughly 150 countries had been started because of the Panama Papers. The prime minister of Iceland had stepped down, and his party had lost the following elections. Government figures had resigned in several countries, as well as bankers, a member of the FIFA ethics committee, a Chilean official of Transparency International. There were mass demonstrations in Iceland, England, Argentina, Malta, Pakistan, and other countries. In Pakistan the Supreme Court was dealing with the involvement of the first family as late as March 2017, while in Panama the authorities finally arrested Jürgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the founding partners of the law firm Mossack Fonseca, the firm whose internal data we had been given. New laws have been introduced around the world, the European Parliament has set up an inquiry committee into the Panama Papers—and all that’s only the fallout that fits in this paragraph. Here’s more, and all indications suggest there will be more to come.

More than two years ago, when I received, from a still-anonymous leaker, the first documents of the huge data set which we later decided to call “the Panama Papers,” we instantly and nervously started looking for stories. Working with my fantastic colleague and yearlong investigation partner Frederik Obermaier (who is, by the way, not related to me in any way) we cross-referenced the data with words like “search warrant” or “sanctions,” we scrolled through Excel-Sheets and PDFs, we skimmed through emails and contracts hastily set up in Microsoft Word. And the first hits were stunning. The acting prime minister of Iceland. The best friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The cousin of Syria’s dictator Bashar al Assad, cronies of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi.

With every single pass at the data, we found an international story. Not all fantastic stories, but good, solid stories. The data set we had obtained seemed to have tremendous potential. We gathered a small circle at Süddeutsche Zeitung and discussed our options. We could keep the data for ourselves and publish story after story for many months. Or we could share the data with other journalists.

For some in our newsroom, the first option seemed tempting. International news outlets would have had to report our stories and all of the credit and glory would come to Süddeutsche Zeitung. But it was clear that if we published alone, a great number of those solid international stories would disappear; our readers are not particularly interested in middle-sized scandals from, say, Angola or Venezuela, and so we wouldn’t have reported on them. And we also knew that we, as German reporters, would inevitably have missed many many international stories, as we have no clue who’s important, say, in Brazil, in Sweden, in India.

I had fallen in love with the heartwarming spirit of these investigations, in which colleagues from other news organizations had allowed us to work on their data.

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From Day One, we leaned toward sharing the data with the Washington DC-based International Consortium for Investigative Journalists. The simple reason was that the ICIJ, an organization Frederik and I had become members of in 2013, had invited us before to several large and highly acclaimed collaborative investigative cross border investigations like Offshore Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks, and Swiss Leaks. I had fallen in love with the heartwarming spirit of these investigations, in which colleagues from other news organizations had allowed us to work on their data. Suddenly, we were in the position to give something back. But you don’t convince your editor in chief with idealism. Luckily we had impact on our side. These joint projects produced amazing results. The Luxembourg Leaks had become a widely known synonym for the tax dodging of multinational corporations in Germany, and earned us numerous awards. Now we were sitting on an even bigger story.

By the time we made the decision, we didn’t even have to draft a list of pros and cons. The benefits of sharing what we knew with a great international team of devoted and excellent reporters just seemed obvious.

It wasn’t until months after the story broke, during my time as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan, that I had time to really think through why we did what we did. Some of our reasons were simple and selfish; others were altruistic. Since I’ve been in the US, I’ve become convinced that most major US news outlets would have kept the scoop to themselves. They would have been wrong.

Here are few arguments in favor of collaborative investigations and data sharing:


The splash

The best reason may be the most obvious—the splash. On the evening of April 3 2016, 8 pm German time, the story which The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann later would call the “monster story” of the Panama Papers launched in 78 countries. The carefully coordinated publication provided probably the biggest megaphone of any journalistic investigation in history. If we, Süddeutsche Zeitung, had published the Panama Papers on our own, or even teamed up with the Guardian or BBC, two of our paper’s regular partners—the impact would have been ridiculously small compared to what we saw on April 3. Everybody was listening as our partners reported their stories from all over the world.

We had literally the ear of the world, if only for a short period of time. You can’t beat that. And you should be careful with it. In the face of gigantomania, if you blow in this huge bullhorn you may have wished for, you better be sure your story is worth it.


Make the cake bigger

The counter argument to sharing information is that it results in less attention for an individual newsroom. That may be right. But the right collaboration with the right partners at the right time can make the cake so much bigger. Even a smaller piece of that cake is larger than the cake you could have baked alone.

Certainly, sharing doesn’t bring the same advantages for each news outlet. For smaller outlets the gains are probably bigger, and larger news organizations have may have less to gain. But even The New York Times would not have been able to assign 400 reporters for a year on a single topic. Even The Wall Street Journal would not have had the capacity to publish nearly 5,000 stories—as our international team did from April to the end of 2016. Even The Washington Post would not have had specialized reporters on the ground in 78 countries. Sometimes more yields more. More stories, more impact.


More and better stories

Yet it is not enough to do simply more stories. When done well, collaborations lead to better stories. We had journalists on the ground almost everywhere we needed them; we had reporters for tedious background work; we had highly specialized reporters for the complex schemes we found; we talked to some of the leading experts in the fields we reported on. And because we had so much information coming in from so many places, we knew we needed especially rigorous systems for vetting and verifying information. We challenged our findings and our arguments until the last day. Collaboration forced us to work through strict internal controls, and that made for stronger journalism.


Share the work and the costs

On our most difficult story, about Putin’s inner circle, we assigned a team of 19 reporters. For months. Show me the outlet that could or would do that on its own. Our paper could only assign two reporters to that story, but sharing the story allowed us to share resources and put more boots on the ground.  That held true around the world. When we needed someone in Montevideo, in Moscow, in Hong Kong, we made a call and one of our colleagues helped out. We asked for many such favors, and many colleagues asked us in return—and no one sent invoices. In a similar manner we shared costs on translations (many documents were originally in Spanish), software, game developers, legal assistance, and other parts of our investigation.

In the end, it didn’t feel like 107 news outlets worked on their respective stories. It felt like there was a huge team with a common goal, a contagious enthusiasm and a die-hard collaborative spirit. That’s important, because it leads the way to the keyword of every joint investigation: trust.


Trust is possible

The most common counter argument to sharing leaks and data revolves around trust. Why would you trust another newsroom to stick to the rules of the investigation? How can you be sure that your colleagues will credit you if they use your work? Inevitably, won’t some participant break the rules to scoop the others—especially as there were no contracts involved with fines or something like that?

The answer to why strong collaborations work can be found in the realms of game theory, and especially in the construct of  “shadow of the future.” Any reporter or news outlet that spoiled the party could be sure that was the last big party they would be invited to. And after the success of the first ICIJ investigations, no one wanted to be cast aside. At the same time all the reporters who already had taken part in a former investigations knew that they could rely on each other, some even became friends—I certainly gained new friends while doing the Panama Papers. One of the biggest achievements of ICIJ is to have built up an enormous trust among investigative reporters, to have created a new spirit in this competitive world.


Trust has its limits

In the midst of all that trust, participants were still fierce about their local territory. That’s the benefit of international collaboration: Direct competition is less of a concern. We love sharing, but we also love our newspaper. So we didn’t invite other German papers or magazines, our main competitors.  We did invite a German public broadcasting company—as we don’t really compete with TV. Similar combinations emerged in other countries, with McClatchy newspapers, Fusion, and Univision collaborating in the US.

Did we invite The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal? We didn’t. ICIJ’S past experiences with big American newspapers were too devastating. Some years back the Times  would, for example, agree to receive interesting data—but not to a collaborative model. This attitude changed immediately after we published the Panama Papers, and we granted reporters from the Times and the Post access to the data. Another one of the few newspapers of worldwide reputation tried the same one-way street model, with quite a bold explanation: We never collaborate—never did, never will. Not very surprisingly we didn’t agree, and, surprisingly now, they changed their policy after all and agreed to share.

Ironically, some of the very news outlets that approached us after the Panama Papers were released had been first offered the leak of the first bunch of the Panama Papers, more than two years ago. They missed the opportunity and turned down the still anonymous leaker, for different reasons.

Protect the investigation; make it unstoppable

While government officials can try to interfere with or stop publishing of a story in their own country, there’s literally no way of stopping a global enterprise that is publishing on multiple international platforms. Look at the Panama Papers: We published in 78 countries. How would one government ever stop that? How would even a coalition of governments be able to stop it? It is impossible.

In fact we did face several instances in which one of our reporters from a country in South America or the Middle East could not publish a story of public interest in his or her country, at least not without risking jail time. What happened was that another collaborative partner ran the story, and the restrained journalists actually could then report on that story—as its publication wasn’t coming from the inside the country. The same would apply, by the way, for the United States, where we saw news outlets as strong as The New York Times holding back a story after government officials had pressured it to do so. This particular effect has been already discussed widely in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, amongst others by Clay Shirkey, in CJR.


Protect the reporters

When my colleague Frederik Obermaier and I started to investigate the inner circle of the Russian president, and at the same time kept finding links to the hidden money of dictators and drug cartels, we found ourselves in a not-so-comfortable position. Many persons who showed up in the Panama Papers were exactly the type of persons you really don’t want to mess with. We even feared for the lives of some of our colleagues, say in Turkey, Russia, or Africa. But we found the collaboration to be an invisible (while not invincible) shield. This shield was formed by a single sentence that we included in many of the almost 300 articles we published at Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The sentence is: “Nearly 400 reporters from 78 countries have access to the data.”

What sense does it make to take out two journalists—if more than 370 highly determined reporters with access to the same documents and knowledge about our story would stay alive? Reporters who would then want nothing more fiercely than to finish the work of their assaulted colleagues? The Streisand effect would multiply the public damage.

Given the current developments in countries like Turkey, where dozens of brave journalists are jailed, and even in the US, where President Donald J. Trump declared several highly respected media “enemies of the American people,” this seems to be an important reason to share a dataset with information that is potentially dangerous for an individual reporter.


Expect the favor back

The first journalist who shared a big data set with many journalists worldwide was, as far as I know, Gerald Ryle, the Irish born Australian journalist who is now director of ICIJ and received, some years back, vast amounts of data from an offshore provider—and created Offshore Leaks, the first ICIJ mega project. The Luxembourg Leaks data were first seen by the French TV journalist Edouard Perrin of Premier Lignes. Two colleagues from Le Monde, Fabrice Lhomme and Gérard Davet, gave the data of the HSBC to the ICIJ and enabled the Swiss Leaks project.

All of them were involved in the Panama Papers, all of them harvested what they had sowed. We were thankful that they invited us in, and gave the favor back. We at Süddeutsche Zeitung expect the same, of course. And so should you, if you ever share meaningful data with others. That’s how it works. That’s also why it works.

So if you see a story too big for just one news outlet, tell your bosses that sharing is ultimately the most selfish thing to do.

Bastian Obermayer is deputy head of investigations at Süddeutsche Zeitung, and currently a Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. An updated version of his latest book, The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money, will be published on March 30. Follow him on Twitter @b_obermayer.