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Marko Langer Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Marko Langer
April 4, 2016

Rarely has "Süddeutsche Zeitung" been in such great demand in newsrooms. The exclusive story on the Panama Papers highlights the power as well as the impotence of journalistic work, DW's Marko Langer writes.

Deutschland Titelseite Süddeutsche Zeitung Panama Papers
Image: DW/B. Kling

Terabyte. Tera-byte. May I be honest with you? I'm afraid I've never "read" a terabyte. Many books, yes. Newspapers, too, lots of them. I'm also on the internet pretty much all day. But a ... terabyte?

Two-point-six terabytes worth of data were leaked to "Süddeutsche Zeitung," one of Germany's leading newspapers, prior to its publication of the Panama Papers. And it turned it into a major story.

I have that on the best possible authority because I've read the paper. And now all those gentlemen - be they Poroshenko, Putin, Mossack or Messi - have a, well, image problem. Quite the scoop.

It's not for nothing that Stefan Plöchinger, Süddeutsche's editor-in-chief in charge of digital projects, took delight in the fact that none other than American whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked the story on Twitter prior to the deadline. Plöchinger tweeted "fun fact: Snowden has 'leaked' our leak - 12 minutes before the deadline."

That's journalism in the digital age. Today, on day one after the "Panama Papers" were released to the public, we must make two basic assumptions.

- Georg Mascolo, a star journalist who left Germany's "Der Spiegel" news magazine over a disagreement, will once again be proud of the research network composed of Süddeutsche and the WDR and NDR public broadcasters - he has been acting as its coordinator and spokesman for two years. "Der Spiegel," in turn, is having massive problems and trailing behind - just like many other major publication.

- Rarely does the whole dilemma of journalistic work become more obvious than on a day like this. According to the dictionary, a 'dilemma' is defined as a 'predicament you find yourself in that forces you to choose between two equally difficult or undesirable options.' Today, the dilemma nine out of 10 news outlets face is: "Do we copy it, or do we give it a miss?"

The answer is that everyone will copy it. That story is just too important. However, today virtually no journalist gets the opportunity to conduct in-depth research into this complex and complicated issue. There is a shortage of time, money, contacts, resources. And - tomorrow there'll be another bandwagon to jump on anyway.

Therefore, I'm now going to disclose a very sad secret of our trade. That's the state of affairs, mostly. Everyone's copying from everybody else, and that's not always helpful when one strives to establish the truth.

Marko Langer Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
DW's Marko LangerImage: Sarah Ehrlenbruch

Here are some heretical questions: Has anyone been to Syria recently? Or in Pyongyang? Or just made a personal appearance at Guido Westerwelle's funeral service in Cologne's St. Aposteln church? I don't see that many hands raised.

So what's to be done? Every reporter who goes out there and sees things for him- or herself is good, because he or she knows it is not about the reporter. And every medium that maintains an investigative unit driven by reporters is a good one from a journalistic point of view.

That is how, in the age of globally networked data streams, you can acquire the decisive advantage that enables you to get hold of such a story in the first place, thereby leaving your competitors to reel from disappointment. So how does it work? Ask Frederik Obermaier, one of the authors of Süddeutsche's "Panama Papers" story. He tweeted "what a year of research, still all hard to grasp."

Perhaps that is what Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had in mind when, at November's LeadAwards ceremony, which honored exceptional works published in the German media, he demanded more diversity from us journalists.

It's not a good sign at all if a top politician issues a reminder like that. For the majority of newsrooms the message is clear: Do your homework! Become more effective. The New York Times has just gone public with its account of how they covered the first couple of hours after the Brussels bombings.

So, we conclude that the focus must be on substance. Reduce the waffling! Süddeutsche - here's one final cheer for my colleagues in Munich - shows how it can be done. Excellent work! To everyone else I say, quoting satirist Kurt Tucholsky: "A bad journalist is not even a philosopher."