A Smart Play by Wikileaks
Like everybody else, I’ve been following the drama of Wikileaks, billed as “the world’s first stateless news organization,” and what the documents leaked through the service reveal about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Few stories could more dramatically show how the press is changing. As Jay Rosen notes at the above link, “in media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.”
A smaller part of what Wikileaks does also strikes me as new — and enormously smart. Back in October, Computerworld’s Dan Nystedt wrote about Wikileaks and talked with Julien Assange, a member of its advisory board. Assange told Nystedt that Wikileaks planned to create a form that publishers could put on their Web sites allowing readers to “upload a disclosure” to the publisher using the online clearinghouse. Wikileaks would take care of protecting the source and any legal risks related to publishing the document, as well as confirming that it’s real. Once confirmed, Wikileaks passes it on to the publisher and gives that publisher an embargo period during which the information is exclusive. After that, it’s available to the world. (I’m trying to figure out if the disclosure form has become a reality yet — Wikileaks, understandably, is a bit overloaded right now.)
As Assange explained last fall, Wikileaks needs that period of publisher exclusivity to guarantee a leaked document gets attention: “It’s counterintuitive. You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
That’s smart, but what’s even smarter is the clever way this arrangement simultaneously serves a publisher and puts pressure on that publisher. Exclusives are precious commodities — many an organization or source has tried to interest a reporter in something and been asked, “Who else has this?” Wikileaks’ disclosure form allows a source to effectively say, “No one — but that will soon change.” As long as a leaked document proves legitimate, the countdown begins and the pressure for publishers to do something with it starts to grow. Sources can favor publishers, but also automatically have a Plan B, with no jousting or negotiating required.
Think how astonishing the little ecosystem that’s been created is compared to how things worked a generation ago. Not so long ago, newspapers, magazines and their ilk were effectively the only ones who could publish and distribute something to a world-wide audience. Now, sources can use a clearinghouse to release that information, with the clearinghouse employing a savvy understanding of publishers’ priorities to maximize the impact of that information. The publisher that once held all the power now plays a lesser role as part of a bigger bargain between three parties.
Not so long ago, that would have seemed like something snatched from a Neal Stephenson plot. Now, it’s new but makes perfect sense. Before too long, it will just be the way the world works.