News surfaced today of a cache of over a quarter million confidential US diplomatic cables between embassies and consulates and the US State Department. The leak has been released to news organisations and has been made available to the public via the website WikiLeaks, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to releasing confidential documents that may have relevance to public debate. You can read an initial breakdown of the latest and greatest leak on the New York Times website.
The leak, the scale of which is unprecedented, cements WikiLeaks as an institution on the web and as an important tool for journalists the world over. It also raises the stakes for the organisation, as the leaks look to be quite embarrassing for the United States. But although WikiLeaks itself may eventually be destroyed by outside forces, lack of funding or its sheer infamy, it is representative of what the open web means for modern publishing.
The instantaneous availability of confidential source material to anyone with an internet connection is something the publishing industry is really only beginning to respond to. The existence of WikiLeaks (or any organisation like it) is further motivation for publishers to move faster and simultaneously provide deeper and more comprehensive analysis in order to justify the longer schedules involved in putting a full-length book together based on this kind of information.
The other big issue the open web raises for publishers is accountability. Traditionally, publishers rely on authors to do the due diligence in terms of fact checking in non-fiction. Although potentially contentious books are checked by lawyers, and editors certainly do a certain amount of fact checking, the buck generally stops with the author. As readers find it increasingly easy to check facts themselves on the web, it will become more important for this most basic level of quality assurance to take place before publication.
Quite aside from any of these points, there’s something essentially unromantic and lacking in smell-of-bookishness that turns me off WikiLeaks. Although the Watergate scandal would still have happened without All the President’s Men, there is something a bit depressing about Deep Throat uploading his information to WikiLeak’s online drop box.
My question for you all today is this: what do you look for in book-length journalism? Do you want a narrative? Do you want a big-name journalist attached? Does the story just have to be so huge it justifies the length and price? What draws you to reading journalism of this size? Or is the art of book-length journalism dead? Post your thoughts in the comments below.