August 9, 2017

Since Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales announced WikiTribune three months ago, the crowdfunded news platform has attracted some serious support: They’ve successfully raised money for 10 journalists, moved into a temporary office space in London, and started accepting applications for beta testing.

And Wales, who wants to create a community of volunteers to “fix” mainstream news, has attracted a lot of help. Advisers include:

  • Marketing specialist/Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki
  • CUNY J-school Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis
  • Model/actress/entrepreneur Lily Cole
  • Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig

Eleven thousand supporters later, WikiTribune has already hired seven full-time journalists. As the company approaches its software beta launch, we caught up with Jimmy Wales to discuss how he plans to uphold standards in his newsroom and maintain integrity in the eyes of his audience.

What factors do you think have caused similar projects to fail and how will you address them?

I think there’s a couple of things that are different here. A lot of pure citizen journalism concepts don’t work because it’s really hard to get to scale from your armchair at home — no matter how brilliant, smart, kind and thoughtful you are.

There is a lot of stuff that you can’t do that is important to journalism. Sometimes you need to get access to a politician. If you want to interview the prime minister, you can’t very well go, “Hi, I’m ‘joe123,’ I’m a Facebook user, and I want to interview you. It just doesn’t work. You need an institutional framework to be able to do those sorts of things. That’s why the hybrid model of paid journalists working side-by-side with community members is a big part of my vision here.

The other thing is, I’ve never seen anyone who really takes as radical an approach of really genuinely letting the community have control. At Wikipedia, where everything you see is controlled by the community – we want to approach things from that standard.

It’s not a top-down editorial model. I think that’s been really hard for people in journalism to get their heads around. In the worst case, we get here is the news article [on the top] and here is the comment box and where all the trolls live. Of the very limited experiments done so far, I’ve never seen anything that takes on the full Wiki concept of genuinely letting the community control everything. We are in the software design process, and it’s one of the things that’s been my mantra. Somebody said, ‘how will we do this?’ I said, ‘we won’t do that. The community will if they want to.’ That’s a big part of this whole thing.

Are you concerned about your users/contributors turning on you? How will you protect WikiTribune’s integrity and prevent that from happening?

I’m not particularly worried about it. I think there are a lot of really great people in the world. Wikipedia has been around for a long time and has always stayed very true to its central vision. People use to worry about [what would happen] if the trolls took over. What if Wikipedia became politically some kind of racist site? Nothing even close to that has ever happened. Turns out there are a lot of very sensible people in the world. People who really like the idea of neutral, high-quality information and are willing to work to defend it, and to be a part of a community that defends it.

Have you created ethical guidelines for your users? What was that process like?

Well, we haven’t yet. Not at WikiTribune, which is wholly independent of Wikipedia, but of course at Wikipedia we have a huge amount of experience doing just that. We have started internally flushing out some skeleton policies and concepts. Not to be handed down from up high, since Wikis don’t really work that way. But just as an opening set of guidelines.

There will be a few things that I will insist on in a top-down fashion. One of the oldest sayings in the Wikipedia world, NPOV (neutral point of view), is non-negotiable. That was a fundamental part of the project from the very beginning and is something that we weren’t going to have a discussion or debate about. If you ask me should WikiTribune be left-leaning or right-leaning, I would say no. It’s neutral, and that’s non-negotiable. Fleshing out what that means in practice is a whole different ball game. But it’s important to start with this as a central principle. That way it’s not an endless debate about what should we be doing. We shouldn’t be politically campaigning. That’s not what we do.

Who do you think WikiTribune’s average user will be?

I have no idea. I can make a few guesses though. Generally, people who are lovers of information, lovers of sharing knowledge, people who are real news junkies and really up-to-date on things. People who take a particular interest in certain topics, I think we will do quite well on topics that are underserved by journalism and the mainstream press. I think that’s an interesting area.

If you go to any major newspaper and see how much attention they give to dog shows (in fact very little) what little press coverage they have is probably slightly mocking in tone. But there is a huge subculture of people who are very interested in their hobby who may want to write very good, high-quality entries on the various dog breeders, dog trainers…. I don’t know anything about the field myself.

That’s the kind of area where you can see communities coming together around something they care about. To say, “Look, nobody is really serving us. We would like some journalism over here please.”

What about the average contributor? In your experience, do you think it will be a concerned citizen? A professional journalist? A mix of both?

I think it’s going to be very interesting to see. I think that there are a lot of people who have areas of expertise and areas of interest who are great writers. Writers who have chosen a different career path but who could still contribute something of value in the process. I think we’ll see a mix of people, and we’ll see a lot of people who are students or retired and have time on their hands for various reasons, who think that helping to support quality journalism is important. Hard to predict.

What are your plans for scaling? If WikiTribune gets thousands of submissions each day for similar articles, how will you organize and publish in a timely manner?

I think that a big part of communities is that they inherently do scale. Not magically. But they do scale. You can go from a tiny village to a small town to a small city to a big city and you’ll have different problems along the way.

But the only reason you would have a problem with scaling is if you introduce an artificial bottleneck in the process. If for example, you had two people who were supposed to click through thousands of submissions and make a decision. Then you have a bottleneck. You can never keep up.

But if you’ve pushed trust into the community, you have trusted people at every layer doing different things in different neighborhoods. Then you can scale very well. The governor of Florida doesn’t have to approve what’s going on in the local Little League matches. The local community organizes and manages them themselves. By eliminating those bottlenecks and really putting a structure in place that allows you to make decisions in a collaborative way, you deal with the scaling problem.

You’ve talked about the importance of neutrality in this project. How are you encouraging your newsroom to aim for it?

One of the things we’ve been doing since we started hiring people is to have our small staff meet and talk through examples. How I think about neutrality, what are some ways for softening something, making sure that you follow your sources, don’t overstate what they say and don’t editorialize on the sources.

It’s all quite old-fashioned, in a way. There is not anything particularly magical about it. I think it’s important to note that the community will be pushing quite hard on this. They are very good at this to say, “All right, well. You said this person said such-and-such but you took the quote out of context. It’s actually a little more sophisticated than that, and here’s a rewrite that takes that into account.” So there’s a lot of elements to it, but it really is about having a certain set of values and a real focus on how you always have to come back and re examine yourself.

How will you prevent WikiTribune from turning into a marketplace where subscribers “buy” journalists they like based on the content they produce?

This is an idea that comes up frequently. That marketplace idea is one that some people think is a good idea, but I think is a bad idea. Why not let the readers and the subscribers actively choose which journalists get their money? So the good journalists will get paid and the ones who aren’t good will fall out and we operate just like a market. The problem with that is the behavior that it induces. It induces users to think I can pay to get my political bias reflected here. It encourages journalists to cultivate a following of like-minded people with a particular bias. By [WikiTribune] standing between these two models and saying no.

Actually, we want the community to help us. We need to serve them with what topics they want. But I believe what they want is not to have their political biases reflected, but to actually have neutral high-quality information. I think breaking that link between the individual journalist and the payment is part of what makes our checks and balances system work. Where you’ve got an editor who says no, just because this story is popular doesn’t mean it’s right for us.

Based on your subscriber data, there was a marked lack of interest in video. Has this affected your content creation plans?

Not at all. I have no interest in video myself, so this confirmed what I believed to be the case. We will have video, but our thinking about video is to utilize video as nodes or evidence for what we are writing. A lot of news sites these days, in the purely ad-funded world especially, are pushing video on the users not because users want more video but because the ad rates are much higher.

That’s a poor customer experience. If people want to watch video, of course, they should be able to watch video. But I think we see a lot of news sites doing annoying things like autoplaying video. When I think about what most people want, reading is faster, and with most people reading news from their cellphones, you really don’t want video as your primary experience.

Does WikiTribune have any interest in working in other areas of emerging media? With interactive features, virtual reality or gamification? Or Is the goal to remain a primarily written publication?

For each of those things, I have varying interest. Interactive features I think are very interesting. One of the things I find interesting about them is that, if given the right tools, community members can actually build interesting things out of data.

I don’t know if we’ll be implementing it, but I think it’s an interesting area. VR, I personally think, is very interesting but as a side experience, I don’t think it’s central. I want to play around with it because I personally think it’s fun. Gamification, I think, is the spawn of the devil so I have no interest in it whatsoever.

Going into the software design, will tools for assisting with things like live fact-checking be created?

I don’t know what tools there might be for live fact-checking. I’m still in learning mode. For me, it’s more about how could people interact with each other using these tools. Who is able to do what on the site? The answer for me is always hopefully as many people as possible can do everything. That’s the way I think about it. External tools and annotations tools, things like that. Yes, we are looking at it but I’m very much in learning mode.

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