Is WikiLeaks More Than Just a High-Tech Brown Envelope? Yes

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

WikiLeaks, the crusading anti-secrecy organization that just published 90,000 pages of secret government documents about the war in Afghanistan, has gotten a lot of attention for its campaign to become the world’s repository of whistle-blowing and embargo-busting information, and leader Julian Assange has become the star of the political talk show circuit. But the most interesting thing about WikiLeaks and the release of the secret Afghan documents isn’t the details of the U.S. campaign — it’s what the incident says about the evolution of a truly distributed and dis-aggregated new media ecosystem.

Shadowy sources have been disclosing secret information of all kinds to newspapers and magazines for decades, ever since Watergate made it seem like a public service to do so. But in this case, there was a middleman in the process, and one with a considerable amount of power — far more than any other source in a similar situation. WikiLeaks didn’t get the documents directly, but was given them by another unnamed source (possibly Bradley Manning, who was the source of an earlier secret video of a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq). The site then proceeded to broker a deal with the New York Times, The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, whereby the media outlets could have access to the documents and publish stories based on them simultaneously. Columbia Journalism Review has a detailed step-by-step account of how it happened.

Not everyone thinks WikiLeaks represents a fundamental transformation of journalism in the Internet age, mind you. Doug Saunders, the European bureau chief for the Globe and Mail newspaper, said on Twitter that “Wikileaks gave us the War Logs scoop in same way the brown-envelope industry gave us Pentagon Papers or parking garages uncovered Watergate” (although he later conceded that WikiLeaks was “a useful vehicle”). But comparing WikiLeaks and what it was able to accomplish to a source with a brown envelope in a parking garage — as Deep Throat was for the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s — misses the larger point.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has noted, even after it provided the documents to the media outlets, WikiLeaks still maintained the ultimate control over them — including the ability to publish all 90,000 of them at the same time that the stories based on them appeared in the NYT, Guardian and Der Spiegel. This, Rosen says, provided an almost unprecedented check on the traditional media, since any gaps or omissions from their stories would become obvious. Typically, sources cut exclusive deals with a single outlet, and that entity has the final say over what appears — but WikiLeaks has altered that traditional balance of power.

You can get a sense of how shaken up this new arrangement has made some traditional journalists, by looking at the response from the NYT reporter who worked with WikiLeaks on the documents, and from NYT editor Bill Keller. The latter defended the newspaper’s decision not to link to the full storehouse of WikiLeaks documents, and also said that he felt compelled to pass on to the group the government’s displeasure at the publication of U.S. government informants’ names and other information, which Keller said he did “at the request of the White House.” Meanwhile, reporter Eric Schmitt seemed to recoil at the idea that the incident was any kind of “partnership” between the newspaper of record and the shadowy info-hacker organization:

I’ve seen Julian Assange in the last couple of days kind of flouncing around talking about this collaboration like the four of us were working all this together… but we were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him. This was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.

Regardless of whether Schmitt or Keller are comfortable with the existence of what Rosen has called “the world’s first stateless news organization,” however, the fact remains that the Internet not only allows an entity such as WikiLeaks to exist, but gives it far more power than any previous non-journalistic organization when it comes to affecting the news cycle. The fact that sources with secret data can now go to an entity that doesn’t have to answer to any state or even international authority gives WikiLeaks a leg up on even the New York Times, which has made questionable decisions about significant news stories in the past (such as the lead-up to the war in Iraq, for example) for a variety of reasons. As Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute put it:

In inserting itself between source and publisher, WikiLeaks has shifted power away from the monoliths that once determined what is news and toward the people who, before the Web, would have been stopped in the newspaper lobby before they could see a reporter.

Media writer David Carr of the New York Times called the WikiLeaks case an example of “asymmetric journalism,” in which the source of information is also a publisher, but also works together with traditional media to make secret data public for society’s benefit. C.W. Anderson at the Nieman Journalism Lab called it “a classic case study of the new ecosystem of news diffusion:

from new fact-gatherers, to news organizations in a different position in the informational chain, all the way to the Twittersphere in which conversation about the story was occurring in real-time, back to the bloggers, the opinion makers, the partisans, the politicians, and the hacks. This is how news works in 2010.

British journalism professor George Brock calls what happened with WikiLeaks and the two newspapers and magazine a “mutualisation” of journalism — a term that has also been used by The Guardian to describe the newspaper’s approach to modern media, which includes an open platform that allows developers to re-use its content, and blog plug-ins that allow bloggers and The Guardian to share content. And WikiLeaks has in mind its own kind of plug-in: an embeddable disclosure and upload form that would allow newspapers to solicit secret documents and then hand them over to WikiLeaks for safe-keeping.

The New York Times and other traditional media entities may not like it, but it isn’t just the business model of journalism and the media that is changing; it’s the fundamental structure of the industry and how it functions. And they had better get used to it. Yes, WikiLeaks needed the Times and The Guardian and Der Spiegel to draw attention to and filter some of the information deluge it had on its hands, but the balance of power between source and publication has clearly been altered, and journalism will likely never be the same.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What We Can Learn From the Guardian’s Open Platform

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users New Media Days, Menage a Moi and Yan Arief