by Lisa Severing, Studentin der TU-Dortmund

More than 370 international journalists in 80 countries worked on the Panama Papers, the biggest investigative project ever done. It exposed a criminal system in the Offshore World involving linkages to 200 countries and 140 public officials like Iceland’s former prime minister. For the project, coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), over 100 news organizations around the world collaborated.

But how do you share and work with 11.5 million files? At the Netzwerk Recherche Conference, Emilia Díaz-Struck talked about the tools and applications that enabled journalists to share such a fast amount of data, to collaborate across borders and to work in a safe environment. Besides these tools that made this massive collaboration possible in the first place, however, there was another key factor equally important: journalists who were actually willing to share.

An interview with one of the leading research editors of the Panama Papers – Emilia Díaz-Struck – about the changing nature of journalism and the increasing importance of transnational collaborative work.

You talked about two kinds of users in the project working together, the developer on the tech part and the source finder on the journalist part. How would you describe yourself?
Well, those are two extremes. I think I am a combination, I am a data-oriented journalist, so I would describe myself as a journalist. Nowadays you have to have knowledge of different things, so I combine a bit of those two worlds – I know how to handle technology, I know how to work with data but I have also done ground reporting and worked with sources. Nowadays, because of my work as a research editor, I work more in the document part that involves also data. But in my career I have done both.

Without these tools would such a project have been possible?
Actually it would have been a challenge, because one key thing about collaboration is communication. So if you are not able to communicate what you find and share it with the others and then someone else for example in another country follows up, on a tip or a finding you had in your country connected to another, it is very hard. You could do it by email for example but then it is crazy. Imagine 370 journalists sending emails. And then there is the security challenge, you could use PGP, but how to organize that? And time, imagine the amount of emails you could produce in one year, and the amount of information you can find. You actually need these kind of platforms to collaborate, if you are not in one local news room. That is like a digital newsroom basically, you had one space online where everyone could communicate.

You highlighted the importance of a community feeling. Do you think the online platform similar to others like Facebook helped creating this feeling?
I think the important thing are the people. You can have platforms and you can have the greatest tool ever but if the people that are there don’t share, don’t collaborate and behave in a way that doesn’t have this team effort, this community spirit, then you don’t have a collaboration. In this case you had at one hand very complex data and everyone trying to understand it, trying to find stories and then you had a community that wanted actually to share and produce stories that had global impact. They didn’t want to just publish their German or Brazilian story. They wanted to see how these stories were connected between countries.

You mentioned the importance of so-called terms of collaboration. What are these?
Being willing to share with everyone. Then the other thing is to respect the confidentiality of the project, because in some cases, like for example the Panama Papers, we are talking about very important information, compromising the project beforehand could raise security issues for someone in another country. You could be for example very safe in Germany but for example in China, Africa or Latin American countries then that could put local reporters at risk. It is very important to withhold it until everyone goes together, this helps generating an environment in which it is not just the local reporters who publish but 300 journalists and more than 100 media partners. Then it is key to keep it among the people who are part of the project and to respect the deadline. But the key and most important thing besides that is being willing to collaborate. There is lone wolf journalism and collaborative journalism. If you are a lone wolf, then you start just not sharing, you receive a lot and you do not give. Then you do not experience this radical sharing.

In one of the conference panels the need for a culture of collaboration away from lone wolf journalism was discussed. How do we achieve this?
If you face the complexity of nowadays society with corruption going global, cooperation going global and you understand when doing your story that when working with other colleagues it is a greater story, a greater story for the audience too, then you will be willing to collaborate. But I do not think lone wolf journalism will disappear. I think we will have the two things, which is also valid. But I think collaboration will grow, you just have to be willing to join the party. If you are willing to share that is the first step.

In your presentation, we saw how this all developed in just four years, how the tools advanced in such a short time-frame. How do you think a project like this might look in four years from now on?
Well, I think we can have probably data ten times as big as the one we had nowadays, because technologies will grow and will change things. But I think we will have probably, hopefully the data sharing we were talking about, where we are not only talking about researching about one specific source, but combining data and making a research deeper. I think that will improve.

In the future, if technologies improve further, will we still need journalists? What will their role be?
We will always need journalism. You might find a lot of people who are able to use tools, but you need to have that experience of how to do reporting, how to do fact checking and how to go for example and ask for comments and the ethical standards of journalism. You need all that to have a good story. So the technologies will just help and will probably change some ways or some formats, but then the thing is how do we journalists adapt ourselves and how do we learn to use the technologies and how do we make them important for us. But I think the ground of journalism will be the same, you might find a lot of things in the environment and a lot of information, but finding a good investigative piece that will make the difference.

If you had to describe this collaboration in one word what would it be?

Emilia Díaz-Struck is the lead researcher for ICIJ’s cross-border investigations. She also co-founded the Venezuelan news website  and is currently a professor of journalism at the Central University of Venezuela. More about Emilia Díaz-Struck:
More about ICIJ and the Panama Papers:

„Panama Papers – Inside the Research Cooperation“ . V.l.n.r.: Petra Sorge (Moderation), Bastian Obermayer (SZ), Frederik Obermaier (SZ), Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson (ICIJ) und Emilia Diaz-Struck (ICIJ).

„Panama Papers – Inside the Research Cooperation“ während der Jahreskonferenz. V.l.n.r.: Petra Sorge (Moderation), Bastian Obermayer (SZ), Frederik Obermaier (SZ), Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson (ICIJ) und Emilia Diaz-Struck (ICIJ). Foto: Wulf Rohwedder