The Leak That Launched a Thousand Political Memoirs

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.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

3 thoughts on “The Leak That Launched a Thousand Political Memoirs”

  1. I don’t think the art of book-length journalism is dead. For example, I’m too lazy to wade through all the documents on Wikileaks, but I would like to read the breakdown of what it all means by someone clever who’s done all the work and put it into handy book form for me. You have more space for reflection and analysis in a book rather than, say, an article or essay in a paper / on a website / in a journal. Plus I’m always a bit suspicious of books rushed out for the sake of timing. One of the strengths of book-length journalism is the perspective that comes with a bit of time and distance.

  2. I get that. And I’m lazy too. But I’m so lazy I couldn’t be bothered wading through a whole book when I could read a super-long article in the New Yorker about it or listen to a podcast. Perhaps this is more of a reflection of me than of book-length journalism…

  3. Having worked as a journo I can’t read book-length journalism as it would put me to sleep.

    I’ve just read a great collection of newspaper columns by Jeremy Clarkson (you know I’m high brow), and loved ‘Resident Alien’, South African journo Rian Malan’s collection of essays on post-apartheid SA (hey, maybe I am deep, after all!).

    When it comes to journalism I think I’ll stick with bit-sized chunks rather than extended re-hashes.

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