Wikipedia Founder Aims to Revolutionize Online News with WikiTribune

In an era of declining trust in media, "fake news" hysteria, and journalism‘s broken business models, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales believes he has a blueprint for more transparent, collaborative, and sustainable news production. His new project WikiTribune seeks to marry the work of professional journalists with the power of the crowd, creating a platform for evidence-based journalism shaped by a community of thoughtful readers.

The Crisis in News

Wales‘ venture comes at a time of deep soul-searching for the news industry. Public trust in the media has hit all-time lows, with a mere 41% of Americans expressing "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in mass media in a 2019 Gallup poll. Globally, the picture is similarly grim: the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found declining trust in media in 82% of the countries surveyed.

The proliferation of so-called "fake news" has only exacerbated this crisis of confidence. False or misleading stories spread like wildfire on social media, where 62% of American adults now get their news, according to a 2016 Pew study. Disinformation campaigns by state actors, ideologically motivated alternate-reality bubbles, and the click-driven excesses of the attention economy have all contributed to a sense that the news ecosystem is fundamentally broken.

Meanwhile, the business model that once sustained quality journalism is in free fall. Print advertising and circulation revenues continue to plummet, while digital advertising is dominated by Facebook and Google. Newsrooms have shed jobs, shut down, or resorted to increasingly desperate tactics to stay afloat. The result is a hollowed-out news landscape ill-equipped to serve the public interest.

Wikipedia as a Model

It is against this backdrop that Wales is betting on a radically different approach with WikiTribune. The basic idea is to apply the model pioneered by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that Wales co-founded in 2001, to the realm of news.

Wikipedia has become a ubiquitous source of information, ranking as the fifth most visited website in the world. Its English edition alone boasts more than 6 million articles, written and edited by a global community of volunteer contributors. While not without its flaws and controversies, Wikipedia is widely regarded as a reliable and comprehensive reference, its quality and accuracy often comparing favorably to more traditional encyclopedias.

At the heart of Wikipedia‘s success is its unique model of collaborative knowledge production. Rather than a top-down, centralized editorial process, Wikipedia is built through the distributed efforts of a self-organizing community. Anyone can contribute, editing articles directly or proposing changes for review. A set of policies and guidelines, refined through consensus over time, ensure that content is neutral, verifiable, and rooted in reliable sources.

This open, participatory model has proved remarkably scalable and resilient. With minimal central oversight, Wikipedia has grown to encompass 40 million articles across some 300 languages. Its community of editors, while largely anonymous and volunteer, has developed a strong ethos of collective responsibility and a robust immune system against vandalism, bias, and abuse.

WikiTribune‘s Experiment

WikiTribune aims to port this model to the domain of news, with a few key adaptations. The core of the operation will be a newsroom staffed by professional journalists, who will work alongside community members to report, write, fact-check, and edit stories. The site will cover a range of topics, from politics and world events to science and technology, arts and culture.

Unlike Wikipedia, which relies entirely on volunteer labor, WikiTribune will pay its journalists. But it will be funded primarily through donations from readers, rather than ads, subscriptions, or wealthy patrons. This model, Wales believes, will free the site from the pressures that have compromised the independence and integrity of much traditional media.

At the same time, WikiTribune promises unprecedented transparency and community involvement in the journalistic process. Articles will be fully open for any registered user to edit, flag issues, or discuss changes. All sources will be cited, all facts carefully checked. Journalists will share their notes, materials, and communications as much as possible without compromising privacy or safety.

The goal is to create a "living, breathing tool that‘ll present accurate information with real evidence, so that you can confidently make up your own mind." In place of the traditional divide between journalists and audiences, WikiTribune envisions a more fluid, collaborative relationship, in which readers play an active role in shaping coverage and ensuring its credibility.

Challenges and Opportunities

WikiTribune‘s experiment holds immense promise. At a time when trust in media is at rock bottom, its commitment to radical transparency, community oversight, and evidence-based reporting could be a game-changer. By enlisting readers as active participants and watchdogs, rather than passive consumers, it could help foster a more engaged and informed citizenry.

The model also has the potential to bolster the economic sustainability of quality journalism. If WikiTribune can mobilize a broad base of grassroots donors, it could point the way toward a more diverse, resilient funding ecosystem for news, beyond the traditional mainstays of advertisers, subscribers, and wealthy owners. Its lean, open-source ethos could also spur innovation and experimentation with new storytelling forms and distribution channels.

However, the road ahead is not without obstacles. One challenge will be striking the right balance between professional journalism and community input. Too little oversight, and the site could devolve into a free-for-all of unreliable, unverified claims. Too much top-down control, and it risks losing the benefits of the crowd‘s collective intelligence. WikiTribune will need to develop robust systems and norms for quality control, dispute resolution, and protecting against bad actors, while still preserving its core spirit of openness and collaboration.

Another hurdle will be building a sufficiently large and diverse community of contributors. Wikipedia‘s success rests on a critical mass of highly engaged volunteers, who devote countless hours to writing, editing, and policing content. WikiTribune will need to foster a similar sense of ownership and shared purpose among its users, while also ensuring that its community reflects a broad range of backgrounds, perspectives, and areas of expertise. Cultivating such a community takes time, care and constant tending.

There are also questions about the scalability of the model. As the volume of content grows, will WikiTribune be able to maintain its standards of accuracy, transparency, and responsiveness? Will it run into the same problems of vandalism, edit wars, and sock puppetry that have sometimes plagued Wikipedia? Can it develop the right mix of technical tools and social norms to keep things running smoothly?

Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether WikiTribune‘s vision of community-driven, evidence-based journalism will resonate widely enough to make a real impact. In a media landscape increasingly polarized into partisan echo chambers and polluted by industrial-scale misinformation, there is a risk that WikiTribune could become just another niche player catering to a self-selecting audience of news nerds and fact-checking obsessives. To truly move the needle on public discourse and media literacy, it will need to reach a more mainstream readership.

The Road Ahead

For all the challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic about WikiTribune‘s potential. Wales and his team have a track record of building online communities and harnessing collective intelligence on a massive scale. They have a clear diagnosis of what ails journalism today and a compelling vision for a more transparent, participatory alternative.

WikiTribune also arrives at a moment when experiments with new models for journalism are proliferating. The crisis of the news industry has spurred a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship, from the crowdfunded investigations of sites like Bellingcat and De Correspondent to the member-supported reporting of outlets like ProPublica and the Guardian. A growing number of local news startups, like Berkeleyside and the Texas Tribune, are pioneering new forms of community engagement and revenue generation.

WikiTribune shares with many of these projects a belief in the power of communities to support and sustain quality journalism. It stands out for the boldness of its vision and the pedigree of its founder. As a high-profile test case for a radically open, collaborative model of news production, it could serve as an important proof of concept and inspiration for other experiments.

Ultimately, the significance of WikiTribune may lie not just in the specific stories it produces, but in the way it reshapes our understanding of what journalism can and should be in the digital age. By redefining the relationship between journalists and citizens, by making the media a participatory endeavor rather than a top-down transmission, it could help restore some of the trust and social capital that have been lost in recent years.

In a media landscape beset by disinformation, polarization, and commercial imperatives, WikiTribune offers a vision of fact-based news as a public good, collaboratively produced and collectively owned. For journalism to fulfill its democratic purpose, we may need many more such experiments in openness, transparency, and community participation. Whatever its fate, WikiTribune seems likely to be remembered as an early herald of that emerging paradigm.

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