July 7, 2011; Source: The Economist | Is (or was) WikiLeaks a nonprofit? Whether or not they have 501(c) nonprofit tax status, WikiLeaks and the various organizations that are modeling themselves on WikiLeaks operate like nonprofits, existing on donations and providing what some people believe to be a public service in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. 

The latest issue of the Economist examines the “host of non-profit actors [that] have entered the news business, blurring the line between journalism and activism,” taking off perhaps on Assange’s defense of WikiLeaks that it is a journalistic entity and merits protection under freedom of speech provisions in the U.S. and perhaps international law.  As WikiLeaks teeters due to political and financial reactions to Assange’s release of hundreds of thousands of secret documents from U.S. government sources, other organizations have begun to take on the WikiLeaks mantle and their functions.

For example, Al Jazeera,  has created a “transparency unit”, and both Al Jazeera and the Wall Street Journal have created anonymous drop boxes for people with leakable documents to deposit. The problem with such drop boxes is whether they provide sufficient protection to the leakers, who, like Bradley Manning — the alleged source of the Afghanistan-related documents to WikiLeaks — could face significant judicial challenges.  Presumably, leakers to Al Jazeera, who may have been involved in the “Arab Spring,” face bigger problems than trials in the U.S. courts. 

In the blurring of the definitional boundaries around journalism brought about in our digital age, the Economist identifies online databases created by nonprofits as new forms of nonprofit journalism.  On the Economist list are the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., whose Transparency Data website includes federal and state campaign contributions and lobbying disclosures, its Checking Influence database of campaign contributions and lobbying by companies, and its Sunlight Live site which melds live video of government hearings with posted contextual information from Sunlight’s databases; in the U.K., mySociety.org offers the TheyWorkForYou database with information on British politicians; and nonprofit investigative journalism sites such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Overall, the Economist leaves a central question hanging: not whether WikiLeaks is a nonprofit, but whether WikiLeaks is journalism. Prior to the Afghanistan document dump, WikiLeaks described itself as “an excellent source for journalists.”  With the controversy it stirred, the WikiLeaks webpage changed to describe its function as journalism, to call its staff journalists, and to title Assange editor-in-chief.  That might be no more than strategic posturing meant to move WikiLeaks into an area protected by the First Amendment if the organization or Assange personally face legal questions in the U.S.

We suspect that  the Economist overlooked many other nonprofit organizations with the mission of gathering and leaking secret government and corporate documents indicates that there’s a question about how to define and set boundaries around this new quasi-journalistic function. 

The Sunlight Foundation makes public information more easily accessible. ProPublica does investigative journalism often utilizing public information. And WikiLeaks reveals information that the government does not want revealed or accessible. Are these organizations really all that similar? Or are the changing boundaries of digital “journalism” making it difficult for all of us to understand the players without a scorecard?—Rick Cohen