#ParadisePapers and the Rise of Professional Peer Production
Back when the Internet was younger (and was still spelled with a capital “i”), great hopes were placed in the notion of peer production, the participation of citizen-amateurs in previously professionalized activities, including the news.
Sometimes known as social production, sometimes as crowd sourcing, the idea held that dramatically lowered costs of organizing, communicating, and sharing would upend many other sectors of modern life, with journalism very much included. Existing institutions, like newspapers, would be disrupted if not destroyed, and in their place would rise ad hoc, decentralized, collaborative networks of citizens working on their own and, largely, in their spare time.
Successful open-source collaborations including the Linux operating system and Wikipedia (which help date the idea) were often cited as harbingers of the networked future.
“Social production: people you don’t know making your life better, for free,” Shirky wrote in the latter book.
Jeff Jarvis, another popularizer of peer production and network theory, offered a vision, known at the time as “digital first,” that cast news professionals less as authors of stories than as facilitators of peer-produced news.
Digital first resets the journalistic relationship with the community, making the news organization less a producer and more an open platform for the public to share what it knows. It is to that process that the journalist adds value. She may do so in many forms — reporting, curating people and their information, providing applications and tools, gathering data, organizing effort, educating participants . . . and writing articles (ellipses in the original).
Well, that was how the world looked to some in 2011. (For a full critique of then-current modes of digital news theory, click here.) Modern life has indeed been very much disrupted and many institutions, including the news business, have been shaken to their foundations if not swept away altogether (though this was no secret after 2008 or so).
But, at this point, most concede that peer production of news has been (generously) a mixed bag, with its value shown mostly and most dramatically in times of mass protest and natural or man-made disasters. Its peak failures have been equally dramatic, most famously when a mob of amateur digital sleuths misidentified the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston bombings. If comments below news stories count as peer-produced journalism — and in some circles, they used to — perhaps the less said the better.
And really, hopes for peer production in filling the day-to-day reporting requirements of a free society in a complex world have completely crashed to earth. The crisis in local news in the United States, particularly, has shown the indispensability of full-time professionals covering traditional beats — city hall, the police department, education, the environment, and so on.
Investigations, likewise, remain largely the business of paid professionals –members of an increasingly impoverished and embattled profession. Are there exceptions? Sure. But in general, this remains the case.
And that’s why #paradisepapers, and its predecessor projects by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are so interesting — and potentially so important.
I had the privilege of working as an editor on the #paradisepapers project for its final months (after it had already been underway more than a year). My work involved guiding a few stories across the finish line.
The work speaks for itself, I would say, and it will come as no surprise to any reader that the staff is made up of an extraordinary group of individuals — editors, reporters, fact-checkers (the unsung heroes), tech support, design, data security — all working at an extremely high level. It was always apparent reading ICIJ from the outside, and it’s even more apparent from the inside.
Beyond the important revelations contained in the stories, it’s important to recognize the significance of the ICIJ model, which is a true cooperative involving dozens of news organizations.
Let’s face it, the internet has in fact wreaked havoc on journalism — destroyed its business model, ramped up reporter productivity requirements, usurped its distribution system, atomized its audience into tribal silos on social media, and all while enabling an explosion of fake news, misinformation and state-sponsored propaganda to flood the public sphere. All that is bad.
But the internet also made the #paradisepapers possible. These kinds of projects require instant global communication, common digital spaces to work and exchange information, and the ability to deal with, sort through and analyze literally millions of documents in a range of formats. (It goes without saying, I hope, that all of the above much be kept digitally secure from government or private hacks). The ICIJ model to me is about taking what the internet is giving you, and making the most of it.
What the internet is giving journalism today (and it’s not much relative to what’s lost, I would argue) is the means to organize professionalized peer production, a networked collaboration of reporters, editors and so on who have done this kind of thing before — and who can do it full time, and do it full time for weeks and months until it is ready. The degree of care and preparation require for each piece is daunting. It is simply not something you do in your spare time, after hours, between dinner and bedtime.
The journalists from the 94 news organizations that participated already had jobs and the editorial and legal support they needed. The ICIJ, meanwhile, is a small organization that relies on donations.
But they formed a true networked global collective that engaged in as much cooperation and information sharing as any conventional newsroom I’ve ever been in (probably more, when I think about it). And they did so with an impressive discipline that kept the project secret while it needed to be secret and on time when it needed to be published. With all the moving parts involved, it was like collaborating on building a commercial airplane and then watching it take off.
And the network is ad hoc in the sense than only organizations that could contribute to and gain from any particular project were included. It’s true that ICIJ has been around a while and many of its relationships have grown into longstanding partnerships. But the network remains ad hoc in that it forms and re-forms with every project, depending on practical necessity. In that way, the system makes highly efficient use of scarce financial support for public interest journalism.
And we see the result.
Speaking as a prof, not a practitioner, what’s impressive for me about the ICIJ is that it’s able to use the cooperative model to exponentially compound the impact of that any one news organization could generate on its own, and in doing so it offers some light in a dark time for journalism.
Dean Starkman was an ICIJ editor on the #paradisepapers project. He is a fellow-in-residence at the Center for Media, Data and Society and a visiting professor at the School of Public Policy, Central European University.