WikiTribune: work in progress

It’s been a month since Jimmy Wales, in partnership with Impossible, launched a crowdfunding campaign for WikiTribune — a new type of news platform that combines professional journalism and crowdsourced fact checking.

As of now, almost 11 000 people have made their pledge to support the project, which will allow WikiTribune to make the initial hire of ten journalists and start building the actual platform.

WikiTribune is a response to numerous challenges that online media are facing today — business models with advertising at their core, shrinking budgets, editorial job cuts, and ultimately, fake news. At the same time it is an attempt to produce a new type of media that accounts for the new online media actors that emerged thanks to Internet — online communities, citizen journalists, community reporters, and bloggers.

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Designing a facts-based and transparent news platform

The ideation process for WikiTribune started back in February, when during a 4-day workshop, a cross-disciplinary team of designers and engineers from Impossible, professional journalists, and experienced wiki volunteers headed by Jimmy Wales, worked together to crystallize and trial the concept for WikiTribune.

We started by identifying several problem areas that we needed to tackle.

First, financing WikiTribune in a way that would keep it completely independent from advertisers, or any other interest groups. There are some good examples in this area — like, ProPublica — an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism for public interest. Most of its funding comes from charitable foundations, philanthropic contributions, donations and occasional advertising, and it is constantly exploring alternative revenue streams. There are also The Center for Public Integrity and ICIJ who do great job with support from foundations. Even at the New York Times subscriptions have finally overcome advertisement, which shows that readers are starting to accept the fact that quality news are as much a product as anything else, and deserve a fair pay.

WikiTribune was launched with a reader subscription model in mind, and that has been the general premise of the crowdfunding campaign. Because of a good response from the donors, a couple of foundations pitched in as well, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the initial support from the donors.

Second, building transparency into WikiTribune. Building transparency into any system, not only media, is a much more difficult task than it seems. It’s not about ‘sharing everything’ — oversharing can degrade reader’s experience as much as cluttered design confuses users with too many unnecessary options and details. This transforms the task into transparency where it matters. WikiTribune will be transparent about the way it operates and will publish its financials regularly. All the news sources will be visible as well which means that contributors will report only on the facts they can verify. A history of changes will be at the footer of every news piece so that everyone knows where each edit comes from.

Third, and most challenging one, is to build a model for professional journalists and community members to work together. It’s this new type of team that will be responsible for producing evidence-based, thoroughly verified stories, and for setting a global news agenda as well.

From the very beginning WikiTribune was planned as a platform that would put community on top. Citizen journalists, participatory journalists, community members and regular readers are already part of the current media landscape. They act like another check and balance lever for the mainstream press, and help hold media accountable.

“Professional journalists do an excellent job, but they’re only human”, says Holly Brockwell, the first journalist hired at Wikitribune. “In these times of falling budgets, subeditors have mostly gone out of the window, and many journos are expected to be the writer, the researcher and the sub, as well as laying out the piece, finding imagery, and frequently creating and editing their own video/livestreams/photography too. Clearly, a crowd model could take some of the pressure off their shoulders, so that someone filing an important story at 4am on nothing but coffee and adrenaline doesn’t have to worry about whether there’s a typo somewhere in their 1500 words.

It also means WikiTribune’s articles will have more long-term appeal, because as stories change and develop, they can be updated. This is one of the strengths of digital media that hasn’t been optimised yet: printed papers were static by design, but digital content can evolve. And again, though WikiTribune will only have a small staff to begin with, the community will be there from day one.”

Journalists and community members working side by side

There have been many attempts to incorporate these new media actors to the traditional news reporting. A good example is BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub founded in 2005. UGC Hub is an interactive department at BBC that monitors social media for breaking news, searches for the original user-generated footage, verifies sources, takes care of the rights clearance, moderates comments, and helps add new facts as they emerge from readers’ feedback.

The BBC UGC Hub has been instrumental in BBC’s reporting on the Syrian War and conflicts in the Middle East, where there is a high proliferation of user-generated newsworthy content recorded on smartphones. BBC journalists at the UGC Hub always take all the UGC pieces that they receive through the rigorous verification process.

Another example of a similar symbiosis is a partnership of Reuters with a non-profit GlobalVoices in 2006–2008. Global Voices is an international community of writers, bloggers and digital activists that originated from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Reuters regularly published selected content from Global Voices, which helped “to enable interaction between citizen perspective and professional journalists in ways that were not possible before”.

Designing a collaboration protocol that makes sense

As we set to design a working model for WikiTribune, we realised that most of the challenges we needed to solve were social by nature, not technological. We needed to design a self-regulated community that would function by following the rules that make sense, and work towards our vision. The web platform itself could only implement the rules and facilitate communication.

So we started with exploring specific roles and permissions that each WikiTribune user would have. Depending on the role, some users will have full set of permissions, like authoring, editing and publishing stories. Others will only be able to suggest edits and topics, others — only to read, etc. On top of all this we added a peer revision system which would guarantee that all materials are reviewed and confirmed by others before they are published. Community members will be fact-checking and verifying all the articles.

Because each article will be result of work of more than one person, we spent quite some time designing a convenient collaboration system. WikiTribune’s editorial office will be largely remote, so facilitating seamless collaboration is essential.

We also put a lot of thought into the mechanism of interaction with the reader. WikiTribune news won’t be ‘once and forever’, instead we want to see stories as living organisms that evolve, just as events evolve in real time. As more details and facts emerge, the stories will flesh out and expand, unsupported claims will be challenged and discussed. Readers will be able to follow the changes and debates on the stories they’ve already read, and suggest new facts and edits.

This is still a work in progress, but the goal remains: to create a well-informed public that cares about good journalism, and, eventually, cares about the truth. We believe that this will help to obliterate low-rent, unreliable news for good. Might sound like a very ambitious goal, but we are Impossible for a reason, right?