There’s still much to be determined about WikiTribune, the as-yet unlaunched community news platform dreamed up by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. How many stories will it publish per day? How will it decide what’s news? How will volunteers work alongside professional journalists?
But as of this morning, WikiTribune has settled on the person responsible for answering those questions. Peter Bale, who was previously chief executive officer of the Center for Public Integrity and vice president of CNN International, has been named WikiTribune’s launch editor, in charge of turning Wales’ vision for a community-driven news organization into a reality.
Bale, whose career has also included stops at Reuters and The Sunday Times in London, isn’t shrinking from the uncertainty that comes with his new job. On the contrary, he says, the uncertainty is part of why he wanted to join up.
“I’m doing this with Jimmy because it is brand new and it’s so innovative,” he said. “I don’t want to give the impression that we have all of the answers here. But I know that the answers lie within the community.”
But how will he interpret Wales’ lofty ambition — “to fix the news” — and turn it into an actual newsroom? Poynter talked with Bale, who now leads a team of six journalists based in London as the organization approaches its launch later this year.
What attracted you to this job?
I think it is one of the most innovative projects in journalism right now, and I like building and creating things. So, I’m trying to put the bones around Jimmy’s overarching vision for this project.
Can you explain how WikiTribune’s citizen contributors will work?
Jimmy’s crowdfunding campaign has funding for 10 journalists. Exactly how we spend the remainder of those funds on journalists will be what we decide now. But the secret sauce to the project is a classic Wiki approach where there will be an extensive community of people who are standing by to contribute.
There’s a core team of staff, but the interesting challenge is how you give power to that community and share the ownership of the journalism between the staff and the community and vice-versa. To what extent can you surrender control of a news product to a community?
It cuts both ways. If you have expert members in a community — which we do — how are they going to feel about some other members of the community influencing it in some way? It is certainly is a factor for staff journalists to work through. And that’s why we have people like Jimmy and people who have a lot of experience with the Wikipedia project to help us work out those things.
Wikipedia uses citations to either primary sources or secondary sources, and those are the underpinnings of the encyclopedia that everyone creates together. But WikiTribune will be creating the kind of secondary sources — news articles — that are cited in encyclopedias like Wikipedia. How will that work?
I think it will be a privilege if what we produce is considered by the Wikipedia community to be good enough and robust enough to be cited. We will be producing content that fits into both the short-term story cycle and stories that will have a longer shelf life. Each of those kinds of stories will have secondary resources, like Wikipedia. A story that is written within a 24-hour period of a news event may have a finite life.
A longer-term, evergreen story may be updated for a very long time and may become the basis for a Wikipedia entry. But there is not a specific link — other than through Jimmy — to Wikipedia.
How will you verify the information that contributors provide?
The verification aspect is crucial, and that’s why there’s a growing set of people who will be in the community of editors and contributors, and they’ll have different categories of permission to contribute and edit and so on. And we’ll have ways of measuring that. Part of the editorial role may be to verify certain stories.
Jimmy’s experience is that the crowd, to some extent, is self-disciplining. A lot of people, including Storyful, have been using crowdsourced verification for a very long time, and it’s worked very effectively, particularly in conflict zones.
No one knows better than you that good journalism takes serious investment. What can WikiTribune contribute to the media landscape that other, better-resourced news organizations can’t?
I think it is going to be this community aspect. And I mean community with a capital-C, not with the lowercase-c in the way that we typically think of communities — comments, contributions and commentary.
A friend of mine, a long time ago, described the internet as Hyde Park corner for Americans. We’ve all experienced hideous problems with comments, with offensive remarks and so on — this has to be a step above what everyone’s used to with comments. There should be genuine domain experts within that community who will be submitting substantial pieces, I would hope.
I’m suspecting, though, that the major area of improvement between what WikiTribune and what others will publish is the extent of expertise almost immediately going into the story. In a sense, the community will act as a panel of experts — sometimes creating, editing and certainly influencing the direction of either individual stories or sometimes coverage entirely.
Do you think WikiTribune can hope to cover the world better than organizations like CNN or The New York Times that have bureau chiefs scattered across the world?
I think we’ll be covering it differently. I say that having worked at Reuters. The AP, Reuters and Bloomberg are coming back into their own in a sense, with this current appetite for high-quality, international, fact-based news. I think our access to an informed community and our ability to reflect the expertise and views of that community very quickly is going to be potentially differentiated.
I think it is going to take time to scale that into a truly international operation, and I wouldn’t compare us yet to the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg and other organizations that have two-and-a-half thousand correspondents.
How do you envision scaling WikiTribune up?
Jimmy has a reputation of having scaled Wikipedia over time and having gone through all sorts of issues with accuracy, to the point where Wikipedia is now recognized as accurate as any encyclopedia that’s ever been published. He’s been through some of this, and we will try to learn from all of those lessons.
It is a different area with news, and I want to be really clear with you, Ben — I’m not an expert yet in how we’re going to do that. Jimmy has wanted me to bring my experience as a news person to tackle exactly the issues that you describe.
How do we scale? How do we attribute information? And how do we achieve sufficient frequency? We’re going to have the equivalent of 10 staff journalists and some dozens, maybe hundreds, potentially thousands of contributors as we scale. It’s going to be a very interesting management issue, as to which stories we choose.
You mentioned earlier in the conversation a really interesting challenge: Managing the interplay between staff journalists who are presumably trained in verification and fact-checking and reporting and editing and community members who may be public-spirited and have information to share but aren’t familiar with those same disciplines. How do you envision your staff journalists working with the network of contributors?
There are some existing processes which are built on the way Wikipedia works, and we’re working through how applicable all of those are for WikiTribune. I edited a story with one of my colleagues today where a member of the community had made what were largely stylistic changes — some of them added to the clarity of the way that the journalist had expressed himself, or expressed facts, and we adopted some of those changes.
In one other case, the community member changed it in a way that didn’t add clarity but did show that the reporter could have done a more skilled job in writing.
I feel like there is a difference between someone who can copy edit and someone like Maggie Haberman, who has a whole bunch of connections and can break news because she knows newsmakers. You would be hard-pressed to find an audience member who is both very tapped into what was going on at the White House and also able to convey the news in a way that is non-partisan. I think relying on your audience to copy edit is one thing, and breaking important international news is another thing entirely.
I agree. And there will be times when we focus on curation of a major story and establishing the most solid and verifiable sources and then working with the community to get information.
For example, if we were covering the Qatar story right now, you can imagine us drawing on a community of people who know the Middle East extremely well who can contribute historical information, diplomatic experience or the scene in downtown Doha.
During the Fukushima meltdown, Reuters was using blogs to cover the story. A member of the public came into that blog. He had been intimately involved in the design of the nuclear reactor and so was able to contribute. That’s the kind of thing I could see us doing very naturally — being able to bring in people from our community who really know the subject.
Look at what Bellingcat has done for the identification of weapons in Iraq or the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner. You can imagine that kind of expertise being available to us in real-time.
Do you envision being supported by advertising?
At the moment, what Jimmy’s said on this is that we’re not going to be doing display advertising.
Another way to make money is reader support through subscriptions. Is that something you guys are interested in pursuing?
I’m not responsible for business development. I’m the launch editor, not the CEO. But I think we’ll look at all sorts of options. Effectively, we already have a large body of subscribers because they’ve contributed to the funding of it. But the idea is that the site will be open.
Of the seven journalists you have on staff, what do they do? Are they all reporters? Do some of them manage audience? Are some of them editors?
All of those seven have a reporting background, including me, obviously. But I would say that curation, community management and editing all need to be part of everybody’s job description.
I’m thinking of them all as producers. Some of them will be producer-journalists, some of them will be producer-curators, depending on their role.
We’re all assembling bodies of content — our stories, our blog entries, our listicles, whatever they are — we’re assembling them from multiple sources of information. I want reporters to be taking substantial responsibility for the way that pieces are associated with background material. A huge amount of what we’re going to be doing is sourcing and attribution and declaring that, and showing sources.
As you know, one of the ways that bias and partisanship tends to manifest itself in journalism is in the decision of what to cover. Right-leaning places generally cover topics of interest to the right, left-leaning places generally cover topics of interest to the left.
Neutral point of view is obviously really important to WikiTribune. So how do you answer the question of what’s news while engaging your community and maintaining a neutral point of view? Just like every news organization, you’re never going to be entirely neutral.
We should be politically neutral in terms of party politics, absolutely. As it says on the tin, we’re going to be evidence-based. I think that means, in certain cases, we would focus on the science behind a story rather than the emotion or rather than belief and myth. So I can imagine us covering issues around climate change based very strongly on the science.
A lot of news organizations would say they’re committed to that empirical view. But how will you decide what to write about?
That is something that I was thinking about before I joined, and it’s something the community will play a big role in. The community has already told us, through surveys that we’ve done with them, that they’re really interested in politics. Politics is the No. 1 thing the community says they want more accurate coverage of.
We’ve got to work out what that really means and go much deeper into that analysis. There’s a reason that populist stories from the Mail Online work very well commercially. That’s not what we’re after. People say they’re only interested in politics, but are they really? We have to unpack that a bit more.
When I worked for a local newspaper, my editor would have a stand-up meeting, and we’d talk about what stories we’d cover in the city for the day. It was fairly easy because it was a small-ish town, and all the reporters were there in the room. But how will you make decisions like that for WikiTribune? Will you hold a conference call line open so everybody can speak up?
That’s what I’m working on with the team right now: How do we take the temperature of the community? And how do we deploy the capacity of our limited staff members? For example: How frequently do we need to publish to be critical? What’s our first point of entry into a story? The team at the moment is working on quite a lot of evergreen, longform material, which will have quite a long shelf life. When we go to launch, I would expect us to be doing more that is within the 24-hour news cycle.
Unless we have specific exclusives coming from the team or the community, we are highly unlikely to be stepping into the ‘who got it first’ speed race with Reuters, the AP and Bloomberg. I’ve spent most of my career doing that — that is not what WikiTribune is about. However, we hope to find a mechanism where we choose to step into a story like that. And we have to produce something that is additive.
Will anyone be able to edit a story?
At the moment, there are different levels of permission. You know that expression about, “When you make a sausage, you don’t want to see how it’s made?” This particular sausage factory is going to be very open.