WikiLeaks and The New York Times: Why Size Matters


It's been a bad few days to be anyone in charge of keeping national security secrets. First The Washington Post published its blockbuster "Top Secret America" series, a 13,000 word investigation of the sprawling and highly privatized homeland security complex. And now WikiLeaks, a rogue website devoted to encouraging whistleblowers everywhere to share what they know, is offering up a cache of more than 92,000 classified documents chronicling the war in Afghanistan from the inside.

But WikiLeaks didn't go it alone. Instead, the site's founder, Julian Assange, offered the information in advance of its release to three newspapers: The New York Times, the Guardian of the U.K., and Germany's Der Spiegel. He did this knowing that reporters at those papers, in possession of an exclusive, would work hard to mine every bit of news from the documents before their public release, whereas, were he to give them to everyone at the same time, no one would have any special incentive to devote resources to scouring them.

Why did Assange choose the Times, among all U.S. news outlets, to favor with his bounty? The answer's so obvious, it's hardly worth stating. It's because the Times is, by an order of magnitude, the most influential outlet -- the one from which all other news organizations take their cues. And that, in turn, is a function of both prestige and raw size: the Times has the third-largest print circulation of any U.S. daily and the largest online readership.

That vast online reach is a big part of what Assange was after. That much is clear from his decision to work with the Guardian, which barely cracks the top 10 in print circulation in the U.K. but has the third biggest website audience, and the biggest for a broadsheet.

But the Times is currently headed down a path that could very well involve sacrificing some of its Web traffic in hopes of achieving greater profitability. The company says it will begin charging its most loyal readers for website access in 2011. The thinking here is: Why pursue bigness for the sake of bigness when a smaller readership might actually be more lucrative?

The WikiLeaks leak is why. The Times' broad reach is part of its influence, and its influence is why people like Assange go the the Times first with leaks and exclusives. You can't make the Times smaller without compromising, however marginally, its news-gathering ability. It may be necessary to make the Times more profitable to ensure its survival, but if there's a way to do it while keeping its content free, it would be ultimately in the paper's own best interest. After all, is it possible to imagine that Assange, the ultimate devotee of the precept that information wants to be free, teaming up with a site that isn't?