Wikileaks no longer needs newspapers, newspapers need it.
This was not always the case. When the website first started publishing leaked documents it found it hard to get coverage in the ‘traditional’ media and the website’s founder Julian Assange is hardly a big fan of newspapers. For the first year the papers and the website had a mutually hostile relationship, with occasional bits of coverage the exception rather than the rule.
Then in July the website published the leaked Afghan documents. This was a huge story but even so it gave the documents specifically to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. This was partly because they would give favourable coverage but at least partly because much of the newspaper industry would have snarled them out of town as rogue imposters. The Guardian probably demanded exclusivity as a condition of putting it on the front page. Even in October when the website published the Iraq war documents it still gave the Guardian exclusivity.
Now that no longer matters. In today’s papers all the broadsheets and the Daily Mail have splashed with the Wikileaks revelations. No need to leak to specific papers, they are eating of Assange’s hand. The power dynamic has shifted from Wikileaks being a potential source for the papers to the papers being vessels for Wikileaks. The website is changing the relationship between leaks and newspapers, an increasingly powerful middle-man dictating the world’s media.
When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Vietnam War Pentagon papers to the New York Times in 1971 he physically carried them into the office of the newspaper and laid them down. The journalists and editors then trawled over them for weeks on end trying to decide whether, and how much, to publish. This time the newspapers will not even have had time to review the documents before publication.
This takes some of the risk away from the papers as they cease to be the first publishers. When the MPs Expenses were released The Telegraph was worried about prosecution, now Wikileaks is taking that risk for them. But in turn this weakens the need for newspapers to exist at all. The role of the editors of today’s papers was basically trying to figure out how to take the exact same information and repackage it in a way that tries to ensure the papers “unique style.”
This poses problems for those of us interested in the future of the industry. If newspaper journalists no longer get to edit what is leaked to them what is their role? Are they merely collators of information, repackaging it in a more concise style? On today’s evidence, possibly.