WikiTribune and the benefits of moving away from the “news story”

I spent the past year working as a staff reporter for an experimental reporting project known as WikiTribune, the news venture of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. This post summarizes a few things learned about audience participation and citizen journalism.

Can the audience help in the reporting process? Of course. Engagement reporters at ProPublica use the experiences and expertise of audience members almost every year to inform hard-hitting investigations.

But whether the audience can collaborate as citizen journalists is what WikiTribune tested for the past year. Often branded as Wikipedia for the news, WikiTribune site allowed “the community” to create and edit ongoing news stories.

What it looks like to edit an ongoing news story

Two weeks ago, the online publication underwent a significant change after laying off the entire editorial staff, including myself. It will continue purely as a wiki-site that is worth checking out. Here’s a letter from Jimmy Wales on the new direction of WikiTribune.

Critics of WikiTribune may find vindication in the recent layoffs. They shouldn’t. This isn’t proof that the collaborative model is fruitless or doesn’t work.

I joined WikiTribune to learn how citizen journalism can be useful, and after a year with the organization, I’ve observed a few ways for this to be possible. The main one being: move away from the traditional “news story.”

When I say traditional story, I’m referring to any stack of paragraphs with a central focus, that must be read from top to bottom to convey the news. This mainly includes feature writing, but also analysis and breaking news coverage — basically the majority of text-based journalism.

For one, writing a coherent news story is not easy. It’s unrealistic to expect people to volunteer the time required to produce a piece of original reporting. And true to form, only a handful of WikiTribune community members were willing to do so.

But it’s more than a matter of time and skill. I see the news story as fundamentally incompatible with collaborative journalism. The goal of a news story is keep the attention of the reader, hoping the juicy info at the top leads to the details at the bottom. But if a good story flows from one graf to the next… where can the others contribute?

“Hierarchy” of a news story

The limitations of the story played out at WikiTribune. Features from staff reporters, including a few impressive exclusives, were often the most viewed and well-received articles on the platform. But they also routinely received the least amount of collaboration. Community members might occasionally edit for grammar, or offer feedback in the TALK section, but ultimately shied away from jumping into the copy in any substantive way.

This lack of engagement wasn’t due to a lack of interest. In my eyes, it was a sign of good judgement from WikiTribune community. It would be an act of vandalism to edit someone else’s carefully constructed piece of journalism.

Storyless journalism and community fact checking

WikiTribune content that consistently garnered the most community edits were articles without sophisticated hierarchy. Instead, the wiki articles with a less curated style were the most likely to draw engagement.

The power of the storyless approach is exemplified in WikiTribune’s community fact checking project — a platform where the community verifies dubious claims made by influencers on social media. It’s an excellent resource that I recommend for others.

One person must start the fact check by posting the claim, and including some background. Other than that, the community can amend a fact check as they see fit as long as they cite their sources.

Community fact check of a Bernie Sander claim from May 2018

Rarely is an individual fact check more than 500 words, or does have a creative hook to draw in readers. There’s no need for one person to take ownership, and author something coherent. There’s no delicate hierarchy of reporting to disrupt, and as result, it’s easy for multiple community members to jump into the copy.

Simply put: Collaborative journalism works when there’s a task at hand, not a narrative to follow.

How journalists fit into this horizontal equation, depends on how you define the profession. If journalism is solely confined to breaking coverage and investigative reporting, then journalists will struggle to find satisfaction in this line of work. Citizen journalism will always move to slowly, and clumsily, to replicate the a traditional newsroom.

But the world of journalism extends far beyond original reporting. We live in an media environment where there is an abundance of quality journalism –the challenge is getting audiences to absorb and trust the material.

An engaged audience is more likely to absorb journalistic content, and no audience is more engaged than one that participates directly.

The wiki community conducted impressive research when fact checking claims made on U.S. poverty statistics and Australia data privacy laws. When empowered to lead a reporting project, they not only read government documents, they shared their findings for others to examine and check for accuracy. That’s an example of successful journalism.

While I’m sad to leave WikiTribune, I still believe the audience can collaborate in the journalistic process. Next time you see a dubious claim on the internet, think about posting it on WikiTribune.

Edit: WikiTribune announced it will be hiring recruit more“community-oriented” journalists in the near future. Link to the announcement included.