Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (along with collaborators Lawrence Lessig, Guy Kawasaki, Jeff Jarvis, and Lily Cole) is attempting to attack the problem of fake news by starting his own journalism outfit. With high-level advisors for the presidential administration famously confused about the nature of truth, with social media acting as a platform for the viral spread of hearsay and conspiracy theories, and with more and more Americans accessing fewer and fewer news sources, it would seem to be a good time to work on fixes for fake news.
Wikitribune, which launched on May 25, uses a hybrid model of professional journalists and editors with contributions from the general public to source, fact-check, write, and edit news stories. Unlike those of traditional news organizations, Wikitribune’s stories will effectively never be “finished,” but will instead be live and updated in perpetuity as new information comes to light on a given issue. Presumably, this will be done with some mechanism similar to the wiki version-tracking used in Wikipedia articles.
Unlike Wikimedia Foundation projects (Wikipedia, Wikiversity, Wikispecies, etc.), Wikitribune is organized as a private for-profit company. It is not directly related to Wikimedia except through its wiki-name and by the fact that it was also founded by Wales.
It uses a crowdsourced funding model, calling for contributors to pledge some amount each month to start up and sustain its work. Sometime between noon and 1:00 PM on May 24, the day before launch, the 10th of its 10 proposed journalists was funded. If it had failed to meet the goal of 10 journalists, supporters would have been refunded.
Fake News Has a Cure
In his video introduction to the project, Wales gives his view on how fake news is a logical extension of the growth of the web and how Wikitribune aims to combat it. “The news is broken,” he says, “but we figured out how to fix it.” He lauds traditional, pre-internet news sources as bastions of truth-telling. He suggests that in the internet era, the news succumbed to the clamor for revenue-generating clicks, advertisers gained more power over online media, and we saw the rise of bombastic headlines, opinion and commentary presented as facts, and, eventually, fake news. “Social media, where most people get their news these days, is literally designed to show us what we want to see, to confirm our biases, and to keep us clicking at all costs. It fundamentally breaks the news. And the truth is, on the internet, no one is guarding the gate.”
The for-profit model is based on a foundation of “professional, standards-based journalism.” but has site users volunteering (for free) to fact-check and edit stories alongside the journalists. The project will also not be supported by advertisers—readers will pay a variable monthly subscription fee, although anyone can read the articles, because there will be no paywall. So the material will be offered freely, but supported by voluntary subscription.
This redesign of journalism reveals a faith in the community to volunteer to work on the news. That faith was a primary driver in the success of the great online encyclopedia Wikipedia, but no one yet knows how well will it work in the world of journalism.
Only You Can Prevent Fake News
Wales is not alone in sensing the need for deep changes in the processes and structure of news media. After the inauguration in January, The Guardian published an opinion piece by Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, the lead journalists who broke the Panama Papers stories, calling for increased and continued collaboration between (normally competitive) journalists. They cited the moment when the new president “singled out a CNN reporter, one of the most respected news outlets in the world, to attack and humiliate him during his first press conference since winning the elections.” No other journalists stood up to protest this at the time, they point out.
They use their work on the Panama Papers as a model for a new collaboration to watch the new administration: “The Panama Papers has shown that a formerly unthinkable project of collaboration can work. When we shared the data of the papers with a team of 400 reporters worldwide, we brought together a vast number of investigative reporters who typically compete which each other.” The work was “too big and too important to do alone.” Even as far back as 1997, still early days for the World Wide Web, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was linking professional journalists across borders to work together on important, complex stories.
Professionalism and objectivity would seem to be trending values in our post-factual media climate. The Guardian too calls for individual readers to pledge monetary support in order to keep its journalism “fearless and free to tell the stories other news organizations won’t,” although its business model does also rely on advertisements.
As some news organizations host more and more commentary, opinion, and infotainment, Wikitribune clearly aims to be in the serious journalism camp. How effective can 10 journalists be, even when their power is combined with that of thousands of online volunteers? The Austin American-Statesman, for example, employs more than 60 journalists (not to mention many more workers in other roles), and its circulation is less than 200,000. Then again, WikiLeaks was very influential with a staff of only five.
The idea that Wikitribune is willing to marry the notion of serious journalism with community volunteers in full transparency is what makes it new (WikiLeaks is far from transparent in its processes for editorial decision making)—and this may be what will make it as revolutionary as Wikipedia.
It could be that a new era of truth, transparency, and information literacy just got kickstarted. We will be watching with interest.
Disclosure: The author has pledged monthly support to Wikitribune.