Jimmy Wales Publishing Journalism

How WikiTribune plans to change the journalism business as we know it

By Ian Burrell, Columnist

February 15, 2018 | 10 min read

High up in The Shard, the UK's tallest building, an experiment is taking place that could transform the way that news is reported and how it is consumed.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Wikitribune

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has turned his hand to journalism with the WikiTribune experiment / Wikimedia Commons

When WikiTribune’s journalists hold their morning news conference they do it in the public gaze, on Facebook Live. They sit with laptops open before a backdrop of the London skyline, more than 20 floors down, and invite their readers, or “community”, to join the discussion and make suggestions as to which stories they should cover.

This is Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’s dream of a new way of news gathering, where the insights and vigilance of a committed global contributor network enable coverage with a greater balance and diversity than existing media organisations – restrained as they usually are by over-stretched newsrooms and defined political agendas – can ever hope to offer.

Its slogan is “Evidence-based journalism, fact checked by you, supported by you”.

Is it a utopian vision? Or can Wales and his small team of pioneers achieve something as culturally significant as the online encyclopedia which is now the internet’s fifth largest website?

Registered users edit stories

WikiTribune launched on 31 October, following a crowdfunding campaign led by Wales last year that helped the venture find 4,500 subscribers (paying a monthly sum of their choice). This is sufficient to fund the fledgling newsroom of 13 journalists and tech specialists, who have so far produced 588 stories, some of which were originated or compiled by the reader community. Content, which is uniformly serious in tone, ranges from meticulously sourced coverage of global issues such as the Oxfam and Harvey Weinstein scandals to a contributor article on the threat to the UK’s hedgehog population.

The public response has given reassurance to Peter Bale, WikiTribune’s launch editor and a seasoned news executive who previously worked at CNN and Microsoft. He says that the key metric of “registered users” has grown from 1,900 during the beta phase of the project to 7,700.

Registered users are those members of the community who don’t merely read an article but sign up so that they can directly edit the copy on a story, or make editorial suggestions to fellow community members in the site’s “Talk” sections, or initiate an article of their own. Without these people, WikiTribune will fail.

“We need the platform to be inviting and to allow every reader to understand immediately and intuitively that he or she is not only able but encouraged to edit the entries,” says Orit Kopel, WikiTribune’s co-founder and vice president for business development. “We don’t have a comments section – we want people to engage in the stories by making them better, not by commenting on the material.”

As a “perfectionist”, Kopel says she was inclined to delay the launch until the site was ready “but Jimmy has much more experience and said we need to launch with the basic product and develop”. So WikiTribune is under continual review, guided by a “Feedback on Everything Please!” section in which more than 700 contributor suggestions have been made to Natalia Avdeeva, vice president of digital. Avdeeva, the sites promises, “is very keen to have a very detailed open dialogue with the community in a very agile way to help her understand as deeply as possible what the needs of the community are”.

Questions are raised about WikiTribune’s lack of a podcast, its story presentation, and its purpose within the news industry. One contributor, John Towler, questions the very notion of 'evidence'-based journalism, noting the existence of miscarriages of justice. “If any member can edit the story and his/her ‘evidence’ check out, then you have a problem, because who’s to say that the evidence is state sponsored fake evidence?” he asks. “It’s going to be a tough call for Jimmy Wales but I wish him the best.” Bale responded to the post by saying he recognised these challenges.

It is a “responsibility” of WikiTribune staff, Bale says, to dutifully interact with Talk posts. WikiTribune even has a staff guide headed “Editorial Team Engagement with Community”, which states: “The editorial staff of WikiTribune should consider themselves to be “producers” creating or starting STORIES, curating PROJECTS and participating in TALK sessions.”

Bale concedes that this democratic culture can be challenging for experienced journalists. He says he has learned to take added care in avoiding phrases which might be regarded as loaded.

“Based on the feedback I see from the WikiTribune audience – which can sometimes be aggravating and infuriating – there is a real appetite out there for people to explain why (journalists) use certain words and to be clear whether those words are justified,” he says. “There’s definitely a critical audience out there which has had enough with more glib approaches to phrases and insults and loaded words.”

Motives and ambitions

For all WikiTribune’s commitment to neutrality and balance, there will be some who will doubt its motives. One contributor interpreted the site’s desire to “take in what what our community wants to see us write” as an indication that it was open to manipulation by a left-leaning lobby. Bale denies that there is a “generic view” among the audience. “I would say that the community is weighted towards Americans, and males – although some days we have 25% female audience, which is very gratifying to see,” he says. “If anything it’s weighted towards people of a libertarian view, it is not a liberal, metropolitan viewpoint.”

Kopel emphasises the importance of creating an environment where women feel comfortable as contributors. “We have strong women leading WikiTribune and are going to make sure we have equal numbers of women employees all over.”

The “number one goal” of WikiTribune, she says is “to get our community to be as big and diverse as possible”. The ambition for the site – which is still marked with the tag “Pilot” – is immense. “In our vision we are going to launch in as many languages and regions around the world as possible,” she says. “We need more support from the community so we can bring stories not only from the UK and US and the subjects the mainstream media is covering but also bring interesting stories from Africa and more under-covered stories.”

WikiTribune has had some success with original reporting, notably a compelling 5,000-word read from New Zealand journalist Michael Field on China’s growing political and economic influence in the South Pacific. It has published a series of essays from former French diplomat Jean-Jacques Subrenat, which Bale says were neither opinion nor commentary. The site’s coverage of stories relating to cryptocurrencies has especially resonated with the WikiTribune community.

But though it has recently appointed a young New York correspondent, Charlie Turner, and has people in California and Dublin, it’s a long way off supporting a truly global news operation. Bale says he has come to appreciate the “amazing” work of the largest news agencies, AP and Reuters, in which WikiTribune places great trust. He has compiled a narrow list of sources which staff can look to. “The only three that they don’t have to explicitly attribute are Reuters, the AP and the BBC,” he says.

No advertising, no paywall

WikiTribune has so far rejected the idea of taking advertising. And the notion of a paywall is wholly at odds with its concept. Contributors might be persuaded to give more money, Kopel suggests, for bespoke WikiTribune projects such as local journalism initiatives, in Africa for example.

This donor funding model has similarities with that of The Guardian, where Wales was previously an influential board member and contributed to its strategy on stemming its losses. WikiTribune is Wales’s “main interest and passion these days”, says Kopel. “He’s very enthusiastic to create something new and strongly believes that it’s going to change things and produce more neutral and diverse journalism.” Wales, she says, has been having “a lot of meetings around the world with potential partners and funders”.

Having financial backers beyond the contributors themselves might prove controversial. Kopel says WikiTribune “will always be transparent about any big funding that we are getting”.

If there’s one thing that particularly stands out about WikiTribune’s collaborative journalism so far, Bale says, it's the duration of some of its stories. “Some are lasting an incredibly long time and it’s a really good reminder that the news cycle, whether a 24-hour TV cycle or a day-long newspaper cycle, just doesn’t really do it,” he says. “Our main explainer on the Weinstein/#MeToo affair has probably been updated 30 times and has lasted three months.” Whereas a newspaper site might run many stories on a subject, WikiTribune likes to focus on a single piece, so it can maintain the energy of an accompanying Talk section.

In this durability there is some similarity with Wikipedia itself. It would help WikiTribune and its public profile immeasurably if the online encyclopedia was to habitually link to the new Wiki news site, both Bale and Kopel agree. But they are also adamant that this can only happen organically when WikiTribune has proved its worth, not because of an order from on high by Jimmy Wales.

“We’re going to produce evidence-based quality journalism and that will qualify us to be a source for Wikipedia,” Kopel says. “It’s not the Wiki way to tell people to direct to us, it’s not going to happen! It’s a community driven encyclopedia and we are a community driven news site.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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