Can WikiTribune ‘Fix’ the News?

Bending the news for political and commercial purposes is nothing new. In fact, propaganda stretches back to ancient Rome, according to the FT. The difference today is that mass communication, the rise of the internet, and citizen journalism have spawned a culture of distortion and fabrication. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can be a self-professed expert.

However, one man is on a quest to change all that. Jimmy Wales, co-founder of online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has announced the launch of a news service called WikiTribune, to ‘fix’ the news. The crowdfunded website will combine the work of professional journalists and volunteers, to bring transparency and truth to news reporting.

How is the news broken?

Wales says there are three core reasons why the news is broken. Firstly, professional journalists are no longer the gatekeepers for reporting the news, as anyone can publish anything to the web. Secondly, he says the business model supporting quality journalism is ‘busted’, as ad-based websites are engaged in a content-churning war for clicks that doesn’t always result in high-quality journalism. And, thirdly, many people don’t want to pay money to support quality journalism, so they get their news off platforms like Facebook. The problem with this is Facebook’s algorithm shows users things it knows they will like, regardless of whether those things are true or not.

A new style of reporting

Wales is determined to fix these issues with WikiTribune. The site will share many of the features of Wikipedia, including the need for writers to detail the source of every fact, and a reliance on the public to edit articles to keep them accurate. However, with WikiTribune, while anybody can make changes to a page, they’ll only go live if a staff member or trusted community volunteer approves them.

There’ll be no advertising on WikiTribune. Instead, Wales plans to pay for the reporters by raising money from a crowdfunding campaign. The suggested amount is $10 a month, but the amount and frequency of gifts can be modified. One of the benefits in subscribing is supporters will have a say in which stories the site covers.

The initial goal is to raise enough money to hire 10 professional journalists in time for the general election on June 8.

Will Wales and his team of fake news fighters succeed?

It’ll be interesting to see how well WikiTribune does. In essence, it’s news ‘for the people by the people’. It’ll be the first time professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side by side as equals, writing stories as they happen and editing them live, while being backed by community checking. But this notion of stories being checked and rechecked could also be its downfall. Fact-checking is a precious skill that takes time and effort. Citing sources is a start but verifying those sources is a never-ending task. Not only that, but stories break quickly around the clock, are very fast moving and contain multiple strands. How are the thousands of stories that hit the headlines every day going to be properly checked? Wales is going to need very generous donations to recruit the number of journalists he needs to make it work.

There’s a deeper question of authorship in all of this too. At what point in the editing and rewriting process does an article cease to be by the person who originally wrote it? If the model is anything like Wikipedia’s page history, the level of transparency that’s necessary to trace a story back to its source can be incredibly time consuming for readers.

Protect your company

While Wales’s vision is admirable, only time will tell if the site will work. It is, however, a welcome start to what will undoubtedly be a long battle to restore credibility to the business of news reporting.

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