What made Panama Papers project successful? Journalists ‘shared in a way I haven’t seen before,’ editor says

“We are in the midst of a revolution.”

Those are the words that editor Martha Hamilton, citing Pulitzer Prize Administrator Mike Pride, used in her opening remarks at the Collaborative Journalism Summit to set the stage for her keynote address about the historic and groundbreaking Panama Papers project.

The quote had extra resonance in a room full of journalists who are doing something that’s long been foreign to their industry: Working together rather than always against each other.

The Collaborative Journalism Summit, hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media, took place May 4-5 on the campus of Montclair State University. About 170 journalists, media executives, funders, scholars and students attended the conference, which focused on collaborative reporting projects and cooperative news networks.

Hamilton and Emilia Diaz-Struck, both of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), gave the summit’s keynote presentation.

The ICIJ's Emilia Diaz-Struck (stage right) and Martha Hamilton (stage left) discuss their work on the Panama Papers collaborative investigation at the Collaborative Journalism Summit. (Photo: Stephanie Marie Scheider)

The ICIJ’s Emilia Diaz-Struck (stage right) and Martha Hamilton (stage left) discuss their work on the Panama Papers collaborative investigation at the Collaborative Journalism Summit. (Photo: Stephanie Marie Scheider)

The Panama Papers investigation marked one of the largest worldwide collaborative journalism projects in history dissecting one of the biggest data leaks in history. The project resulted in 159 official inquiries around the world. More than 80 countries have launched their own investigations since the papers were published.

The Panama Papers disclosed financial and legal records that detailed weapons deals, tax evasion, child abuse and terrorism. After publication of stories began, $135 billion in market value was lost for roughly 400 publicly-traded companies that were shown to have used off-shore investment vehicles – the greatest financial loss after a scandal on record.

More than 300 journalists from large news organizations like The Guardian to small nonprofit and startup news outlets collaborated on the Panama Papers project, which ultimately earned the ICIJ the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

All of the journalists, based across six continents, had access to the same information. They created The Global I-Hub, a secure social network for journalists, to facilitate the collaboration. Diaz-Struck commended the journalists involved for their dedication to sharing their findings and working together. “They were able to connect stories,” she said. “They shared in a way I haven’t seen before.”

Diaz-Struck stressed teamwork as a key element of the project. This prevented threats like censorship, particularly in places like Venezuela. “Everyone had a deep understanding of why we had to work as a team,” she said. “The solution to threats was working together.”

More than 4,700 stories were written based on the Panama Papers, which dealt with over 140 politicians from 50 countries. “We knew this was important,” Diaz-Struck said. “We never thought it’d become so big.”

Collaboration was not only beneficial but essential in order to have the manpower needed to conduct thorough research and chase leads for the project. “There’s not a news organization in the world that by itself could’ve gone through the 11.5 million files that were the Panama Papers,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton cited three key factors contributing to the current rise of collaborative journalism: adversity, the digital revolution and increasing flexibility to work across different media platforms.

Hamilton also highlighted three important factors to consider when approaching a collaborative project: choosing the project, choosing the partners and getting the right people to work together.

Hamilton was optimistic when contrasting “The Golden Age” of journalism to how the field is today.

“I’m more excited thinking about the days ahead,” she said. “Together, we can produce stronger, deeper stories with political reach and impact.”

Diaz-Struck emphasized the importance of having the right people working on the project in order to maintain trust among everyone involved. “We don’t welcome lone wolves,” she said. “We believe in radical sharing.”

Journalists’ willingness to share information is vital as it directly influences the quality of stories, according to Diaz-Struck. “You can have the best investigative journalist in the world, with all the skills, but if that person isn’t willing to share, this magic won’t happen,” she said.

Author Aimee La Fountain is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

About the Collaborative Journalism Summit: The Collaborative Journalism Summit took place May 4-5, 2017 at Montclair State University. It was an international symposium on collaborative reporting projects and cooperative news networks. The summit was hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media and presented by Google News Lab and the Rita Allen Foundation, and is sponsored by the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the CUNY Graduate School of JournalismMontclair State University and the Rita Allen Foundation.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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