Wikileaks is a relatively new media player with a promising approach. Somewhat like The Smoking Gun, it gets the proverbial brown envelope and publishes. It made a big mark in getting some records on Guantanamo Bay.
But its latest strategy is raising questions. Wikileaks has come into possession of a number of documents involving an aide to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and rather than publish them, it wants to auction them to a news organization for a presumed window of exclusivity --- then publish them.
Now, without knowing exactly what the documents contain (let's assume they're terrific), Wikileaks is running a little risk in changing its open-source delivery system into one that is no different than any other researcher.
Concerns are being expressed about so-called chequebook journalism, but news organizations pay freelancers and researchers for their documentary work all the time. The bigger issue here seems to be that Wikileaks feels certain documents will qualify for auctions, which defeats some of its purpose to publish readily and in a timely fashion.
If I were buying these documents, I'd want a very large window, proprietary online rights for some time, and copyright protection of some sort to shield my investment and derive the greatest possible benefit.
We all like getting the unmarked brown envelope, sealed by someone who has had enough with the subterfuge or the disinformation or the misguided media. We can only imagine what it feels like to have that brown envelope contain a secret we kept from the public.
Which is why Wikileaks has been such an adventure online since its inception a year ago. It has been fearless --- almost dangerous --- in taking documents that weren't destined for the public domain and putting them up for all to see.
In the early days of the Internet, there was criticism that roughshod sites might elude accountability by placing servers and domain registration in jurisdictions indifferent or averse to prosecution. Wikileaks has revived that concern, and many groups that seek to take it down have been thwarted in part by its mirrored addresses and vaguely organized operation.
But it hasn't pratfalled over the tripwires. Large news organizations have cited its findings. Large companies, groups and governments have descended at times to shut the site --- all of them unsuccessfully. And somehow Wikileaks has adhered to a discipline of verification.
Wired's profile this month does well in examining its challenges of securing content in a very security-conscious information environment.