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May 10, 2016, 2:34 p.m.
Reporting & Production

A few weeks after the Panama Papers’ release, The New York Times and Washington Post start digging in

Many newspapers aren’t comfortable with ICIJ’s “radical sharing” concept.

The Washington Post and The New York Times, initially not invited to participate in the worldwide Panama Papers investigation, have now signed collaboration agreements with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists leading the project.

The Panama Papers, first published April 3, is the largest release of data ever about the secret world of offshore companies. To date, the investigation has brought down the Iceland Prime Minister and spurred dozens of investigations and hundreds of stories about world politicians, celebrities, businesses, and sports figures who shelter money offshore.

When the investigation began over a year ago, the only U.S. partners out of the more than 100 world news organizations involved were McClatchy newspapers and Univision/Fusion.

“We are excited to be working with The New York Times and The Washington Post, two of the world’s best newspapers,” said Marina Walker, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.–based ICIJ. “Both of them signed up at more or less the same time, two or three weeks ago. Both teams were recently trained by ICIJ researchers and reporters on how to use the data and we continue to assist them as needed, like we do with other partners. So far, so good.”

Under the agreement, the Post and Times are expected to collaborate and share what they find with other partners as they comb through the research.

The Times and the Post now have access to the 11.5 million records covering four decades from a Panama law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that specializes in setting up offshore companies. A “John Doe” anonymously leaked the records to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung in early 2015. While still unidentified, the source published a manifesto explaining why he did it last Friday.

On Monday, ICIJ published a searchable database, open to the public, of more than 200,000 offshore entities.

Once the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung realized it could not handle the 2.6 terabytes of raw leaked data, it reached out to ICIJ, which had handled three smaller, though similar, collaborative leak investigations. The consortium then created software to share the data through a Facebook-like virtual newsroom, known as the I-Hub, that requires a two-step process to access the data.

Jeff Leen, investigations editor at The Washington Post, confirmed his paper’s participation. “Once we saw what ICIJ was doing and the size of it, we wanted to be able to report on it,” said Leen. “First we were talking to them about how to report on it in the smartest possible way. Since we had a relationship with them previously, that made it easy. Then everyone at the Post agreed it might be a good thing for us to join the coalition. ”

In 2013, the Post worked with ICIJ on an investigation into the secrecy of offshore tax havens. It’s not a new topic for Leen, who began looking into how the drug dealers used the offshore world back in the 1980s.

Leen noted there’s still a lot of reporting to be done with the recent leak because Mossack Fonseca’s records detail the setting-up of offshore entities, but not the bank records that tell precisely what’s in the bank accounts.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ former public editor (and soon-to-be Washington Post media columnist), took the paper to task for downplaying the Panama Papers after the story caught the paper unaware when it broke worldwide on April 3 at 2 p.m. ET. Readers asked her why the Times was ignoring the largest-ever leak of secret data. (At 9:15 p.m. on April 3, the Times published a staff-written story.)

The Times began talking with ICIJ and just started exploring the data with a half-dozen journalists in Washington and New York, said Matt Purdy, the Times’ deputy executive editor.

“We got access to the documents through ICIJ and have a group of reporters and editors who are trying to work to build on the great work ICIJ and its partners have done,” said Purdy. “It’s a great trove of documents, and we wanted to see what we could find in them. It wasn’t that complicated.”

Why weren’t the Times or the Post included originally? Walker said that, in general, many newspapers are not comfortable with ICIJ’s “radical sharing” concept, in which all journalists who agree to collaborate must promise to share their reporting, protect confidentiality, not share the data, and publish when ICIJ gives the go-ahead.

“We worked with the Post in 2013 for the offshore leaks project,” said Walker. “It was okay, but it wasn’t a great fit. So this time around, we were approached by McClatchy and decided to work with them.”

Unwittingly, the McClatchy newspaper group had reached out to ICIJ at just the right time.

McClatchy “didn’t know we had a project,” said Walker. “They said, if you have any projects, please count us in. They have a great reputation, having done critical reporting before the Iraq War. They own the Miami Herald, and we knew Latin America was going to be a big part of the story.”

ICIJ then invited McClatchy to work together, and didn’t bother asking the Times or the Post.

“In the U.S., we had a partner ready to go and willing to follow the rules,” said Walker. “We could have tried to convince the bigger partner [The Times] to come onboard. Honestly, we didn’t have time. We didn’t even try this time with the Times or the Post.” Instead, the Times and Post came to ICIJ.

Alicia Shepard is a media writer and former NPR Ombudsman. She recently returned from two years working in Afghanistan with Afghan journalists and the U.S. government.

POSTED     May 10, 2016, 2:34 p.m.
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