Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Wikileaks tragedy of the commons?

A German blog has an interview up with Julian Assange of Wikileaks. The focus is the financial aspect of Wikileaks, including its recent "strike" (see here, at least for now) as a plea for cash. One interesting thing mentioned is that the founders are "refugees from China and other places." Also interesting is that at least one of Wikileaks' five core staff members isn't averse to paying sources (hypothetically, of course – they don't even have enough for servers and staff right now):

Actually we would have no problem giving sources cash. We don’t do that, but for me there is no reason why only the lawyers and the journalists should be compensated for their effort. Somebody is taking the risk to do something and this will end up benefiting the public.

Paying sources is frowned upon in old media, but then again, stodgy old newspapers might not be the best companies for budding new media organizations to emulate. New media darling Gawker (which only "inadvertently" commits acts of journalism) has been toying around with paying sources, though it's not clear how that's worked out.

The article also deals heavily with Julian Assange's idea that Wikileaks' information falls prey to a sort of tragedy of the commons – Wikileaks will publish what its believes is an important but complex document, but no organization will spend the time combing through it, since they anticipate that someone else will beat them to it. As a result, according to Assange, nobody will end up writing about it. But if it's clear that no news organization is going to write about it, doesn't that essentially give whichever one decides to read the document de facto exclusivity? Couldn't the NYT, say, just do research for a month and not tell anyone it was doing it, and then release the synthesis all at once?

It just doesn't seem likely to me that there's a huge problem of news organizations demanding exclusivity in order to even bother reading something that's publicly available – I'll bet that in reality, the information just isn't as important as Wikileaks would like to believe. Unless anyone has a better explanation?

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