Tweeting about tax tricks: My internship with European Investigative Collaborations

by Anika Reker

As common for students of journalism, I have done tons of different smaller freelance jobs and internships - including periods at print and broadcasting media in my home country of Germany and abroad. I was almost at the end of my studies, and had seen enough to quit “internshipping” when the opportunity came up to work with an international collaboration of journalists focusing on investigations. Even though I had a master’s thesis craving my full attention, I could not resist applying to a very vague job description proposed by the European Investigative Collaboration (EIC) and its German media partner and founding member DER SPIEGEL. All I knew was they were looking for someone to support the coordination and the social media publication of a project, which was – due to its secret character - not further defined. Looking back I can conclude that applying to this slightly mysterious job offer and dedicating six weeks to EIC and its latest release on investigating the EU tax haven of Malta in #MaltaFiles was a good decision.

Since EIC is not an institution but a loose cooperation between more than ten European media outlets that share information and collaborate on stories, there is no editorial department located in one place – at least not physically. Communication and collaborative research happen online, while the participating journalists are based all over Europe. This makes total sense for the partners but is not the ideal precondition to introduce the new guy (me) into the workflow. That is why I spent the first three weeks at DER SPIEGEL’s headquarters in Hamburg. The idea was that I would support the team working on #MaltaFiles in the pre-publication-period - thereby getting an insight and an understanding of the current project. Due to the fact that I was the first intern in the EIC network, there was not a list of tasks that needed to be done when I started the job. I learned that the EIC partner members realized during their first big coup – referred to as #FootballLeaks – that there were smaller things no one had the time to take care of, such as Social Media and the tracking of releases by other news outlets about the impact of their work. Therefore, they agreed to hire a student for support in the post-publication period.

I am thankful for the confidence of EIC network and DER SPIEGEL, who granted me access to their data treasure and confidential information. My “office” in Hamburg was located in the data room, a secret hideout established last year when the #FootballLeaks team processed 18.6 million documents from the biggest leak in the history of sports. I was encouraged to try out search tools used to process the data. Honestly, I realized that I might not be the investigative talent that smells a story in a bunch of numbers and figures. Due to my own incapacity to deal with data, I was even more impressed by the journalistic achievement behind turning those crazy amounts of terabytes into readable stories that leave an impact.

Identity Crisis: Who am I and what am I doing here?

Even though I really enjoyed spending time at DER SPIEGEL, there were periods when I felt a little lost in the sacred and secret and - to be blunt - little dusty data room (for security reasons the cleaning staff has no access to the room). Since the main purpose of my job was bringing to life and feeding the networks freshly launched Social Media channels in the phase of post-publication, I could not complain about work overload in the first part of my internship, which led to me feeling a little obsolete every now and then. When I started the job the research for #MaltaFiles was already in its final stage, which did not leave many opportunities for me to contribute. Even though the #MaltaFiles team - including DER SPIEGELs Co-Editor-in-Chief, Alfred Weinzierl, investigative coordinator Jörg Schmitt, highbrow scribe Jürgen Dahlkamp, data-journalist Christoph Henrichs, Nicola Naber from the fact-checking department as well as EIC coordinator Stefan Candea - took lots of time to introduce me to current and past projects, each of them had other stuff to work on and was not able to constantly keep me busy.

It did not help that not all of DER SPIEGEL’s 1,000-plus employees know exactly what EIC network is all about. When talking to someone from the cultural department, I would have to elaborate a little more in detail about my internship and its purpose, which made me realize that I was myself not too sure about that – at least not at the beginning. Only later I realized that the phase of observing without chipping in much was absolutely crucial to understand workflows and enabled me to work independently from home in the second part of the internship.

Second Phase: Social Media Campaign

While there was a slight absence of clearly defined tasks and guidelines on the general job description, there was no lack of rules about what not to do when it came to Social Media. The EIC partners had agreed that they wanted the network to be present on Twitter and Facebook, but only to serve as a platform bundling the contents and articles coming from the participating media outlets. Due to totally understandable and legal reasons the EIC channels should not transmit opinions and remain totally impartial. For me this did not make my job of raising attention to the Social Media appearance of EIC very easy since I was not able to react to user comments. All I could do was observe and remind journalists to respond with their personal accounts.

So, while the main tasks for most people managing Social Media accounts usually consist in engaging with their users, my biggest challenge was to keep an overview of the publication schedule of the network partners. Starting on 19 May there were 14 media outlets that published over 90 articles on #MaltaFiles in more than ten different languages. Keeping track, translating teasers and staying in touch with the journalists was more work than I expected. Also, keeping an eye on official reactions and articles about #MaltaFiles - the positive as well as the negative - took quite some effort and made me realize why none of the network partners would have the time to keep up with this on a daily basis.

Just another Data-Leak? - Why #MaltaFiles matters

At the end of my internship I was content with the feeling of having contributed something to a very important project. To see how stories like #MaltaFiles emerge when dedicated journalists from all over Europe bundle their resources and smaller outlets are supported by bigger network partners, was maybe the most valuable thing I learned. #MaltaFiles uncovered how companies and rich individuals take advantage of partially legal but ethically questionable structures in the European Union to save taxes for their personal benefit. They revealed how businessman transferred millions of Dollars to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family by secretly donating an oil tanker through companies registered in Malta, and gave other examples of disputable entanglements of political and economic interests in Europe.

Still, some critics argue that after #LuxLeaks, #PanamaPapers and #FootballLeaks the world has seen enough projects where journalists teamed up to analyze millions of terabytes of data. Some complain that all these big revelations helped media organizations gain attention - but did not change the status quo. In truth, there has been an increase in projects emphasizing maybe too much on the research process and the story behind the actual revelations and yes, the rich and wealthy still continue to take advantage of tax loopholes. Still, from my point of view the argument about stopping the work of investigative publications because they might not always have the desired impact does not make sense. Changing power structures that are out of control is a long process in which journalism plays an essential role: it can raise awareness about certain deficiencies, and thereby initiate the process of political and societal transformation. And what would be the alternative? To stop working, and leave the dirt under the carpet? Surely not! Therefore I hope that EIC will continue to combine its powers to publish inconvenient truths. And to the next student who receives a vague, undefined and uncommon job description from an international investigative network, I can only recommend them to take that opportunity.