Predicting the future of WikiLeaks: Follow the media!

The New York Times asked me to do a short piece for their Room for Debate forum on WikiLeaks. Go read the whole piece; below is a paragraph that I'd like to discuss in more detail on this blog:

One possible future for WikiLeaks is to morph into a gigantic media intermediary -- perhaps, even something of a clearing house for investigative reporting -- where even low-level leaks would be matched with the appropriate journalists to pursue and report on them and, perhaps, even with appropriate N.G.O.'s to advocate on their causes. Under this model, WikiLeaks staffers would act as idea salesmen relying on one very impressive digital Rolodex.

The argument I'm making in the Times piece rests on three premises:

a) WikiLeaks, at least in its post-Cablegate reincarnation, has two major assets: an easily recognizable brand and an extensive network of contacts in the media

b) If the Cablegate release ends up having significant global repercussions -- resignations of politicians, alterations in the behavior of governments and corporations -- this is bound to encourage more people to take risks and start leaking

c) The buzz generated by the Cablegate makes it clear that WikiLeaks is only as effective as their media partners: they are the ones screening the cables, identifying narrative threads, redacting the names, and, most importantly, embarrassing the parties involved.

Thus, one of the most important questions about the future of WikiLeaks is how they will choose to structure their relationship with the media. One option that I outline in the quote above assumes that they would continue operating in the Cablegate role set: i.e. WikiLeaks would leverage their brand to solicit leaks and rely on their in-house technology to protect the anonymity of the leakers, with the media doing all the heavy lifting -- i.e. writing news reports based on the leaks.

That said, I myself am not sure if this option is sustainable, especially for leaks that are less explosive than the poignant cables penned by arrogant American diplomats. Suppose I want to leak some documents about corruption in, say, Azerbaijan. Why would I bother leaking them to an organization that knows very little about this country if I can leak them to Azerbaijan's best/only oppositional newspaper or, failing that, simply distribute them to anti-government bloggers? And even if I do leak them to WikiLeaks, wouldn't they just reroute them to the very same sources after going through their database of media contacts? In other words, why bother with an intermediary?

One reason for needing to keep the intermediary in the loop might be WikiLeaks's newly acquired connections with the likes of the Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. These media -- rather than Azerbaijan's anti-government bloggers -- would be far more effective in attracting global attention to these stories and thus ensuring at least a modicum of embarrassment to the parties involved.

I'd really like to believe that this is a valid assumption. But cynical as I am, I also wonder how much global appetite there exists for stories about corruption in Azerbaijan, Moldova or Mauritania. I suspect that Assange is bound to run into the same global attention problem that Ethan Zuckerman has been trying to tackle for a while now: it's not easy to get people to care about what's happening in far-away and exotic lands -- and certainly not about their complex politics. I don't think that the greater availability of classified information, even when backed up by superb technology for anonymous leaking, would substantially change the amount of attention that global audiences are willing to expend on understanding Azerbaijan or Moldova.

Thus, we should not get carried away: the reason why there is so much hype about the cables right now is because they implicate the United States, a country that everyone loves to hate. I bet cables written by diplomats from, say, Cambodia would be barely noticed by the global media. The United States is unique here because it is clearly the only country that has a stake virtually in every part of the globe, so every cable counts. Now, how many cables from Cambodian diplomats in Macedonia can one really read without falling asleep? Probably none: most people don't care enough about Cambodia, let alone its foreign policy interests in the Balkans.

So, now we are getting to the very heart of the issue. For WikiLeaks to be truly effective, someone knowledgeable -- i.e. not just a geek on a quest for global justice -- needs to look at the cables and tell a captivating story about them. In fact, the story needs to be so captivating that it would even make Cambodian cables from Macedonia look like a treat. This is also the conclusion of my piece in the Times:

One could only hope that the lesson he [Assange] would draw from all this is not that WikiLeaks had not released enough documents but that, in order to be truly effective, any releases of documents needed to be accompanied by dedicated investigative reporting and strategic and careful advocacy.

As I note above, it's possible to do this by pursuing partnerships with the media -- but in this case, it's still not clear what value WikiLeaks actually adds to the process other than providing safe technology for leaking.

Another possibility, which I didn't have space to consider in the Times piece, is that WikiLeaks would develop an in-house fleet of investigative reporters -- they are laid off in droves and searching for jobs anyway -- who would be employed full-time to produce well-informed investigating reporting from far-away lands. Thus, there would be no need to work with intermediaries and WikiLeaks would, all of a sudden, have a reasonable raison d'être (it would also ensure protection from the likes of Joe Lieberman, for it would clearly be a journalistic venture).

What would happen to WikiLeaks pieces once they are written? One option is for WikiLeaks to become something like ProPublica and either try to syndicate their articles to whatever media would take them or strike exclusive deals with select few media partners. This won't be terribly profitable and no U.S. foundation would want to touch WikiLeaks for a very long time (private donors, on the other hand, are a different case; there are plenty of rich oddballs like Peter Thiel who may find the idea of funding WikiLeaks very appealing -- too bad he won't be able to use PayPal to wire his dues though). On the other hand, the WikiLeaks brand right now may be strong enough for them to run on donations for quite some time -- this seems to work with Wikipedia (but the latter do receive a lot of non-donations money as well).

As the above should have made obvious by now, I clearly don't think that the story of WikiLeaks is nearing its end with the full release of all the cables. I know for a fact that Assange has been thinking about the kind of relationship that WikiLeaks needs to have with their media partners for years. I suspect his thinking has evolved quite a bit this year, not least because WikiLeaks has become a media's darling after spending a few years in relative obscurity.

Whatever strategy Assange chooses to pursue, I don't think it's possible to get the future of WikiLeaks right without first addressing the media relationship piece of the puzzle.