WikiTribune restructures around community following editorial exodus

Wales coordinates an early build of the WikiTribune

WikiTribune, the ambitious community-driven newsbrand backed by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has restructured after confirming to The Drum the departure of its original 13 journalists.

The title’s co-founder, Orit Kopel, has said that it will extend its pilot period while it hunts for a more “community oriented” editorial team that will better work with contributors.

The site went live in August 2017 with CNN and Reuters veteran Peter Bale as launch editor. Its pitch was “evidence-based journalism, fact checked by you, supported by you”. Bale was tasked with helping to develop a new model of journalism driven by contributors, polished by collaborative scrutiny and brought up to standard by an editorial team. Bale left in April and now the team he helped assemble has followed.

WikiTribune is a news site open to edits from contributors in a manner similar to sister webpage Wikipedia. Some commentators felt this diminished the role of journalists and its contributors would suffer from a systemic bias. It asserted it was merely evolving editorial responsibility to help develop a “neutral point of view” on the day’s news.

In its model, the editorial team, six of whom were “London-based young journalists” were positioned as producers who start, direct and form a narrative from the very public discussions held in its forums – much in the way sister title Wikipedia operates.

The group’s co-founder and vice president for business development, Orit Kopel, acknowledged there were mistakes in how the structure panned out. It is worth noting the title remains in pilot and will be another six months before moving into beta.

Mistakes

Kopel told The Drum: “As this project is so radical, the only way to learn is to try, make mistakes, fix them and move forward.”

To this end, she highlighted that the contributing community should play a larger role in the development of the site. It is out to recruit journalists once again but this time it is looking for them to serve in a role that is “more community oriented, rather than supervisory".

She added: “The main thing that we learned so far is that in order to implement our vision, we should give the community the full confidence that WikiTribune is based on their contributions, while the professional team is here mainly to serve them where needed.”

This reframing of the journalists’ role is important to the future of the title. It did not quite develop the kind of relationship with them that it initially hoped for.

“We stated from the first day WikiTribune was launched that we think of our community and the professional journalists as equals. It means that at no stage were the journalists there to ‘overlook’ the community's work, but were there to work with them collaboratively in order to develop high-quality news articles.”

She added that its journalism talent was supposed to “provide professional support and attend the community's needs, in order to maintain WikiTribune as a true Wiki”.

Despite the hiccup in the development, Kopel thanked the staff who helped inform this pilot. “Our wonderful staff has been doing an incredible work. We were lucky to have such an inspiring professional team. We learned a lot from them and we are now moving forward to explore a new way to construct our journalism team.”

Nonetheless, Jimmy Wales summed up the need for journalists on staff in an interview with Nieman Lab earlier this year. He said: “You need to have some professional journalists on staff who can do the things that it’s too hard to do from home, and yet you shouldn’t discount the value that a great community can bring in terms of fact-checking, overseeing things, working on neutrality, and even doing some original reporting, when they’re well-suited to do it.”

By this logic, the recruitment drive ought to be concluded sooner, rather than later.

An extended pilot

Kopel outlined a vision for the company in a blog on Sunday 21 October. She said the title will invest in technology and community support and will rebalance the editorial team to better manage communities. She wrote: “Despite the best efforts of staff, the overall structure and design didn’t let the community genuinely flourish.”

Now more contributors have been given access to publish stories, a privilege once reserved for the editorial team. This will take some of the friction out of the publishing processes, especially with the diminished editorial input at the moment. The hope is to also implement a list of pending edits to the CMS for easier collaboration too in the coming weeks.

The hunt for a completely new editorial team was epitomised in the following statement from Opel. “What we are doing is inverting completely how people normally think about communities and journalists – the community is not here to merely help the journalists. Rather the journalists will be here to work for the community.”

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