“The news is broken, but we have figured out how to fix it.” These are the opening words Jimmy Wales speaks in a fundraising video for his new newsgathering venture, Wikitribune. One might think it inadvisably bold to kick off a crowdfunded campaign for an evidence-based journalism site with a nakedly unverified claim. Or perhaps it is incredibly smart.
If we have learned anything about the current operation of the news ecosystem it is that when it comes to the spread and engagement of news, feelings do better than facts, personalities do better than institutions, and technological elites are oddly lacking in self-doubt.
On this count the Wikitribune message is on point. The proposition of the site is that it will be “a news platform that brings journalists and a community of volunteers together”, working on an equal footing.
“We want to make sure that you read fact-based articles that have a real impact in both local and global events. And that stories can be easily verified and improved,” the mission statement says.
By Friday Wikitribune had recruited enough members to hire four of the 10 professional journalists it aims to recruit. The community around the site will edit and help verify stories they wish to see reported.
Digging in to the coverage of Wikitribune, there appears to be a high degree of scepticism that it will be a success, and even some suggestion that this type of approach is not only failing to ameliorate the current news environment, but is actually part of the problem. This is not the professional criticsso much as the very sharp and considered critiques that came from Wales’s Reddit Ask Me Anything session with users.
“What if 10,000 political extremists want to pay for reporting that furthers their agenda? What kinds of checks and balances will there be to stop anti-democratic groups using WikiTribune?” asked one. Good question.
Wales had a detailed reply: “One of the reasons I’m not setting up a ‘journalism marketplace’ type of system where people can directly choose a journalist and pay them is precisely that this would lead to exactly what you describe. Yuck.
“The key here is that there will be a strong view that neutral reporting is at our core, led by me insisting on it in the early days, and the hiring process will reflect that. Not to take too strong a side here, but if 10,000 advocates of Pizzagate sign up to have us investigate Pizzagate, they might be disappointed with the results, because the facts of reality most likely don’t really back up their beliefs.”
This seems to be a more traditional setup: crowdfunding and some collaboration, but the stories investigated will ultimately be decided by editorial oversight and the values of the organisation.
What Wikitribune seems to be aiming for is an institution housing practices already happening elsewhere. David Fahrenthold, a political reporter at the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer prize this year for exactly the approach and…