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The Coming Media Convergence

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For the second week in a row, a top executive of one of the leading international newspapers that recently collaborated with WikiLeaks recounted what it was like to work with the group's controversial founder Julian Assange.

Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, detailed his experiences "on the hazards of co-ordinating five newspapers and an information insurgent" in a remarkable piece last weekend.

Following Bill Keller's catty account in the New York Times, in which Assange was judged to be "alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street," Katz found Assange "ferociously intelligent, with a control freak's mastery of detail and an infectious enthusiasm." This despite the fact that the Guardian's "pioneering WikiLeaks collaboration," ended like that of the New York Times before it, "in distrust and legal threats," as the headline on Katz's article explained.

The most notable part of Katz's piece -- other than his admission that he had mistakenly emailed the biggest scoop in decades to the BBC -- is his actual analysis of the collaboration itself, which he describes as "a model of what traditional media and the new breed of digital subversive can achieve together." There's been an awful lot of speculation and analysis -- much of it ill-informed -- speeding through cyberspace of late on the disruptive impact social media are having on all sorts of institutions, especially political and legacy media types. Some argue that the new media are now not just supplementing but actually supplanting the old forms. What Katz experienced and reveals to us, however, is a harbinger of an exciting journalism future-in-the-making -- the coming media convergence:

Much has been written about the culture clash between what many in Wiki-world rather derisively call "mainstream media" and uncompromising information libertarians such as Assange. But if anything, I was struck by how the two cultures converged during the collaboration...

Assange brought a trove of raw data and a considerable degree of savviness about how to work with vast, complex databases -- and, not insignificantly, the ability to publish outside the reach of any individual jurisdiction. The Guardian and other media partners brought the old-fashioned journalistic skills and deep expertise required to figure out what mattered -- and the resources (some 40 Guardian reporters worked on the cables alone) and commitment to deal with highly sensitive material responsibly.

Remarkably, despite the tensions, distrust and threats, both Assange and Katz learned much from the collaboration -- and both began to change:

Assange started out as dismissive of the need to protect sources in the documents, and now effectively only publishes cables redacted by conventional media partners. As for the Guardian, we have undergone a crash course in working with massive databases, something which is sure to become a bigger part of what we do, and redoubled our commitment to an open, collaborative style of reporting.

Contrast Katz' attitude to that of Keller of the New York Times, who instead insists throughout on treating Assange only "as a source," and adds rather nastily, "I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism."

C'mon, Bill Keller, if playing an instrumental part in bringing those leaked war logs and embassy cables to public attention isn't journalism, what is? Keller and co. are now said to be reinventing the WikiLeaks wheel, developing their own secure whistleblower drop-off site. But like it or not, the top Times man and other leading mainstream media figures will inevitably soon find themselves learning from and eventually emulating the Guardian/WikiLeaks collaboration. Here comes the new media convergence!