Rebuilding trust by trusting the audience
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, believes that the news industry is broken and he reckons he has a way to fix it.
In collaboration with Orit Kopel, CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation, Wales is building WikiTribune, a news platform that aims to put a small staff of journalists and a community of volunteers on equal footing in order to create ‘evidence based’ and neutral news stories.
The launch, which is due next week, will unveil a ‘minimum viable product’ that should pilot a new way of telling a story, according to its Launch Editor — and Global Editors Network President — Peter Bale.
While WikiTribune’s launch strategy has been firmly put into place, it is up to the community of volunteers to decide where WikiTribune goes next.
This sense of uncertainty and opportunity seems fitting to a news platform that aims to always be in flux, growing alongside its community and producing articles that can be amended ad infinitum.
We talked to Bale about WikiTribune’s brand of journalism, a pernickety audience, and how this very unusual news platform will define its very own success.
Good conversation will drive out bad conversation
The reporting process
WikiTribune staff journalists serve to ‘spark’ conversations. Then, the community — which Wales hopes to grow beyond the 6,000 people that have signed up so far — is able to write and edit articles, which will be published once they have been reviewed by a staff editor. The goal is for the community to become self regulating. Any changes made to articles will be visible to the reader in a ‘history’ feed to guarantee full transparency and to hold writers accountable.
The goodness of the crowd
‘Jimmy is a great believer in the fundamental goodness of the crowd’, adds Bale. He hopes that a sense of quality will be adopted ‘as strongly in the community as it is among staff’.
He complements Wales’ ‘optimism and almost naivety’ with a healthy dose of scepticism, seeing as he is in charge of overseeing the quality of the content distributed on the platform.
‘This is the scary thing about it’, says Bale. ‘We have an arrangement with the Wellcome Trust, which is the biggest medical research group in the world. We will be getting pieces written by the Wellcome Trust media team on medical discoveries and they will be going up on the site and open to edit from the audience as well’, completely flattening the editorial hierarchy, leaving experts open to challenges from the WikiTribune community.
The role of staff writers
Lessons have also been drawn from Wikinews, which relies only on community contributions and ‘hasn’t really managed to scale’ according to Wales. Bale says WikiTribune differs by having staff writers to drive the conversation forward in a professional manner, suggesting that the goodwill of people sometimes needs a bit of prompting.
In an article published on Nieman Lab, Andrew Lih compares Wikipedia and Wikinews, claiming that Wikipedia’s formulaic style and continuous format are more conducive to collaborative writing projects. Articles on Wikinews — and WikiTribune — are news stories, which require creativity, ‘a lead, a coherent narrative, and a deadline’.
‘If you’re trying to write something approaching a feature piece, it’s much harder to get more than two or three people to stay consistent with the style’, says Lih.
WikiTribune seems to be looking to assert itself somewhere in between the two models, where articles and edits by the community need to be reviewed by an editor before publication, who will ensure a level of coherence and remove any vandalism and additions that are ‘stupid or poor’.
‘It is a big ask to get someone to write a full piece of journalism’, says Bale. ‘Some of the edits will be similar in intent to Wikipedia, where people will be linking to more background than we have and that’s extremely welcome. We don’t want our pieces to turn into Wikipedia articles, but we are more than happy to have the richness of source material added to them’.
The Strategy: Don’t leave the scalpel in the tummy
Bale reveals that WikiTribune hope to soon run a major investigation about a globally important and underreported story, which involves murder on the high seas. Can you guess what it is?
Bale is however cautious not to oversell the investigative capacities of WikiTribune.
WikiTribune will be ‘more about what Americans call enterprise journalism, because the staff have to follow leads of their own.’
In order to make such a vast operation possible, Bale has laid out some ground rules.
He mentions the The Checklist Manifesto, in which New Yorker journalist and surgeon Atul Gawande writes that almost any process can be improved if you have a checklist.
‘This is the reason surgeons no longer leave scalpels in people’s stomachs’, says Bale, who wants to apply this principle to journalism.
Editorial guideline checklist
- International: Is the story sufficiently international for us to cover?
- Interest: Does it have enough key points of interest?
- Facts: Are there facts on which we can base the story? If it is just an opinion, we will discard it.
- Multiple voices: Does it have multiple points of view coalescing in the same story?
- Complexity: Is it complex? Is it something we can bring understanding to?
- Duration: Is the subject likely to have a longer life than just one news cycle? Natural disasters or plane crashes are not covered, while the investigation into the shooting down of a Malaysian airline by a Russian missile would be.
Overall, four or five curated briefings will go out per day about the top five or ten stories in the world. A perfect example of a WikiTribune story, according to Bale, is Catalonia as it brings together a wide range of voices and clashing opinions. Once the story is out, it is up to the community to decide where to take the story.
For example, WikiTribune might decide that they will only report on the clean up after Storm Maria in Puerto Rico once, but parts of the WikiTribune community might be based in Puerto Rico and demand more coverage, in which case the reporting would be handed over to the community.
What’s the perfect format?
Cheat Sheets and quick bites
A developing news story ‘in any normal news environment would be a multi-pronged story that comes in and might last 24 hours’, only to be discarded and replaced with a newer story. By not killing a story after a day, Bale hopes that the community will be able to contribute to it for longer, giving WikiTribune stories an extended life span.
Axios have served as a good example for Bale on how to report on developing stories.
‘Their formula for doing quick bites out of developing stories is very impressive and we will take a look at that [for WikiTribune]’.
In some circumstances, stories will be written from start to finish, but in others, earlier material will be pushed down and re-topped by more recent material. This is a formula that has also been adopted by the Atlantic in their Cheat Sheets, where every update related to a particular news story is added to on a single page.
‘Of the six most popular stories produced by the Atlantic in 2016, three were Cheat Sheets’, according to an article by the Nieman Journalism Lab, making this an effective format.
Another area where Bale is expecting to get a lot of community input is essays.
‘We have a rather wonderful former French diplomat who has written us five or six quite detailed essays on his views about diplomatic events’.
Bale says essays will not be ‘a broad brush attack’ claiming ‘I think Brexit is going to hell’, but they will be written in a neutral manner: ‘Here’s why Brexit might fail and here are the reasons based on my experience’.
Essays are written from the point of view of experience, which might be difficult to fact check. But according to Bale, there will be an insistence on fact and attribution to what is being said and like with any other WikiTribune piece, the community can add and edit.
Video and podcast
Around launch time, WikiTribune content will be made up of predominantly text and static pictures. Bale does reveal,however, that they are releasing a ‘terrific video essay from Venezuela’, a format which might make the collective editing process more difficult.
There is also talk of a partnership under way for a podcast, but Bale insists that ‘we must walk before we can run’.
The comments section ‘in most publications has become a deadzone of binary criticism’, says Bale. ‘It’s either people going at the publication or at each other’. This environment of ‘whoever shouts the loudest’ is often particularly difficult for women and minorities.
WikiTribune’s answer to these ‘desert like spaces’ is Talk, a concept which has been brought over from Wikipedia. While Bale admits that people might initially treat it as a normal comments section, its aim is to be more of a working space, where people who want to stop short of actually editing a story, can have discussions with other WikiTribuners, suggest edits, and voice objections.
‘It’s also the place where journalists should be able to commission and be commissioned’.
This section will be regulated through notice and take down. Bale also says that there will be a pact of understanding between the WikiTribune staff, the community, and readers, which goes something along the lines of: ‘Be nice to us and we will be nice to each other’.
‘You can see how idealistic this is!’ concludes Bale.
Critics, cynics, challenges
Bale notes that people who have spent their lives in more normal journalistic organisations might grapple with the ‘surrendering of control to the audience’, and the ‘tremendous amount of trust in the goodwill of people’.
Wikipedia did not become the world’s ‘go-to source for information’ in a day, so why shouldn’t WikiTribune be able to do the same for news?
Here are some of the challenges WikiTribune needs to overcome:
‘It is absolutely the case that the great majority of our existing subscriber base and people who have declared an interest in the site is male and in the United States’, admits Bale, adding that WikiTribune is looking to make a concerted effort to reach women and minority groups.
Part of this is about creating a ‘safe space’, but it is unclear how this will be achieved except for the commitment of creating a diversity statement. Wikitribune is also looking to hire more journalists outside of London where they are based, as a ‘diverse newsroom gets more diverse stories’.
‘We have a higher number of UK citizens who happen to be members of staff at the moment, but we now have staff in New Zealand, Bangkok, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, and London’, showing that writing global news stories will be a big ask. Growing a large, diverse, and geographically dispersed community will therefore be of critical importance.
A pernickety audience
‘I can tell you already from the beta that the audience is determined to hold us to account. Even the most minor use of cliches and sweeping statements — they get right to it’, says Bale, underlining the main challenge of creating a platform where everyone in the community can chip in.
The first WikiTribune taster article was met with a considerable amount of criticism. The Times referred to WikiTribune as having ‘teething troubles’, claiming that some supporters had cancelled their donations in protest.
‘Readers complained that the article — an interview with Richard Curtis, the Four Weddings and a Funeral writer, about efforts by celebrities and philanthropists to combat global poverty at the United Nations — was littered with factual errors and incomprehensible sentences. Many also detected a liberal bias against Brexit and Donald Trump, a troubling charge for a website Mr Wales vowed would have “neutral reporting at [its] core”.’ The Times said.
Luckily, criticism of this kind is perceived constructively at WikiTribune, which is unsurprising, as the whole idea of it revolves around incorporating input from the outside.
Bale rewrote the story and answered ‘I think all 50 of the questions’, in the comments section. Bale also adds that if the story had been published on the WikiTribune site rather than Medium, it would have been clearer to show what had been changed.
The case of the taster article has also served WikiTribune staff as ‘a reminder, where none was needed, of how hard journalism actually is’.
‘This is a real challenge to the staff journalists, [as it] forces them to rethink cliches they might have used, phrases they might have used. Can I stand up what I am asserting here? Am I perpetuating my own liberal bias?’
The article stated ‘the rise of populism reflected in the election of President Donald J. Trump’, which Bale considers to be a relatively neutral and provable statement. The challenge lies in realising that not every reader will agree, but still finding ways to speak to them without being ‘glib’.
Bale also adds that the only bias towards the left in that story might have been that it was about human rights and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. ‘If that’s left leaning, then we are not going to please everybody’, he says. ‘The extreme poles may not find a happy home where we are’.
A staff journalist at WikiTribune has to be a producer at the same time. The initial team at WikiTribune were all young and ‘skilled at multimedia things’. When writing stories, they will have to keep in mind: What are the best illustrations for my piece? What is the best social media plan for it? What is my engagement with the community going to be?
How to measure impact
‘We are launching a minimum viable product with minimum viable journalism’, says Bale, in a tongue-in-cheek way.
- Launching on time to meet pent up consumer demand.
- Producing four to eight pieces a day.
- Converting engagement into subscription. As it stands, 4,500 donors have subscribed financially and 6,000 people have signed up to be part of the community.
- Launching a newsletter, which will be highly sponsorable.
Other than the Google Digital News Initiative grant and the sponsorship from the News Integrity Initiative at the City University of New York, all money has come from subscriptions.
The only way you can convince readers to give up their hard earned cash is by building a direct relationship with them, said Mathew Ingram, writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, during his keynote at Medientage Munich. This suggests that WikiTribune might be onto something with their community-based approach, especially seeing as the revenue growth from digital advertising for media companies in the US last year was close to zero, according to an analysis of IAB estimates by Pivotal Research senior analyst Brian Wieser.
Bale says that WikiTribune will not be taking any advertising, ‘certainly at launch’, to ensure that there is no suspicion that a particular body is influencing their content any way.
‘There isn’t unfortunately a Silicon Valley billionaire behind this project. It is a community driven project led by the person who created Wikipedia. I should also stress that in Jimmy’s vision, it’s a for-profit business.’
We look forward to seeing how it pans out.
About Peter Bale
Peter Bale is the the launching editor of Wikitribune. He is also the President of the Global Editors Network. He was previously Chief Executive Officer at the Center for Public Integrity, the global nonprofit investigative journalism organisation based in Washington, DC. He joined the Center after three years at CNN International where he ran CNN.com and other digital products outside the United States. The International edition of the CNN site recorded double-digit growth in users, engagement and revenue during his tenure heading teams in Atlanta, London, Dubai and Hong Kong.
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