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The economics of getting reporters to pay attention

From Raffi Khatchadourian's profile of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks:

Still, the site remains a project in early development. Assange has been searching for the right way not only to manage it but also to get readers interested in the more arcane material there.

In 2007, he published thousands of pages of secret military information detailing a vast number of Army procurements in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and a volunteer spent weeks building a searchable database, studying the Army’s purchasing codes, and adding up the cost of the procurements -- billions of dollars in all. The database catalogued matériel that every unit had ordered: machine guns, Humvees, cash-counting machines, satellite phones. Assange hoped that journalists would pore through it, but barely any did. “I am so angry,” he said. “This was such a [bleeped for your protection] fantastic leak: the Army’s force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair, and nothing.”

WikiLeaks is a finalist for a Knight Foundation grant of more than half a million dollars. The intended project would set up a way for sources to pass documents to newspaper reporters securely; WikiLeaks would serve as a kind of numbered Swiss bank account, where information could be anonymously exchanged. (The system would allow the source to impose a deadline on the reporter, after which the document would automatically appear on WikiLeaks.) Assange has been experimenting with other ideas, too. On the principle that people won’t regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 9, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
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I read this at The New Yorker a few days ago. The idea of a Wikileaks subscription service to newspapers appeals to me more than the current state where they just publish online immediately with no filter - but the level of their editing of the content makes me nervous.

Perhaps he's right that journalists are less willing to sift through pages and pages of documents or hours of video, but I still think the gatekeeper is important. Their attitude about gatekeeping flys in the face of concrete journalistic tradition that is there for a reason - journalists have the priority of printing except in very specific cases where something could threaten national security or where perhaps someone has been a victim of something like sexual assault and there's no need to release their name. I just think these tenets of journalism are there for a reason and if we've lost them, we've lost everything. Sure journalists aren't perfect at evaluating risks and may be overly cautious. A lot of times, citizens deserve to know what's really going on...but that shouldn't be at a risk to security. That's the problem I have with Wikileaks. They are no gatekeeper at all. Journalists could learn something from them, but the opposite is just as true.

Posted by: jebersole | June 9, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I guess I don't understand why I should trust the judgment of Ezra (or Matt Drudge, or Helen Thomas) about national security more than I should trust some dude at Wikileaks.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 9, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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