Wikitribune venture will not address journalism's underlying issues

Emily Bell
Jimmy Wales hopes to bring ‘journalists and a community of volunteers together’. Photograph: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

“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 methods of reporting described by Wikitribune. Farhenthold’s Twitter feed became the focal crowdsourcing beat for reporting on Donald Trump’s use of his own foundation’s funding. He followed it up with the scoop on Trump’s off-camera remarks about how he approaches women.

More controversially, the crowd-supported and directed social reporter exists outside professional organisations too. Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP, has been tracking the Trump administration’s links with Russia, again through her Twitter feed. Mensch-as-sleuth has unearthed new material, but her style and approach has raised questions over her accuracy and targets, leading to suits for harassment. Wales and his supporters have an opportunity to professionalise part of this emerging practice.

Under the editorship of Marty Baron and the financial and technical stewardship of the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post is one of the great success stories of digital transformation. It is not clear whether Wales includes the work of Fahrenthold and the Post in his sweeping statement that “news is broken” or whether he is in fact seeking to emulate its success at a smaller scale.

There are many reasons to welcome all manner of interventions in the current media landscape, and public support for the process of reporting on powerful institutions should be encouraged in any way possible. How Wales’s efforts relate to examples like David Fahrenthold - and Louise Mensch, for that matter - is important, however, because it casts some shadow of doubt on whether it is an effective intervention.

One slightly off note about the launch of yet another site for news is the sense that all other models are wrong but someone has the right one. This is definitely not true. One analysis of the problem with news at the moment is that all institutions are in a state of frailty, and being good at accountability journalism does not necessarily innoculate you from this. Jimmy Wales’s assertions probably land most awkwardly in US organisations such as ProPublica and Mother Jones, both relatively small reporting organisations that have been doggedly determined in doing the best innovative work in digital formats, and both of which I am sure could really use another 10 journalists if only someone would pay for them.

Is the problem with news that we are doing it wrong? Or is the problem that the institutions that are doing it right are too few and far between? Or that they don’t have enough sustainability and enough reporters to do more? Or is it that actually the broken parts of news are sometimes the journalism, but they are other things too – like the commercial structure of larger organisations such as Facebook and Google?

The first thing that is needed to help civic discourse and public accountability evolve might well be a new approach, but is it an approach that foists on us more demographically predictable - sorry, white men - individuals telling us that there is a solution none of the rest of us have been smart enough to work out? It needs to be an approach that leaves behind some of the misleading simplicities of venture capital speak - no one, thank god, wants to be the “Uber of news” any more - and competitive replication that has weakened rather than enhanced the field.

In developing an analogy that draws parallels between 2016 for the news industry and the financial crisis of 2008, one can characterise Facebook as Goldman Sachs and the election result as Lehman Brothers, and then maybe Jimmy Wales as a new cryptocurrency. An experiment, but not one that will address the underlying issues.

‘Second guessing’

I was struck this week by a presentation given by Jessica Lessin, the founder of the Information, to a subscribers-only event in New York City, where she issued the provocation to news organisations that “the disruption of the last decade is over”. Lessin says the key changes to the market, at least in the US, “are pretty much played out”, that as a result newsrooms are wasting their time in “constant experimentation and second guessing” and that instead they should be investing in reporting, taking back their distribution strategies and being tech centric.

This is to some extent self-serving. If you are a disruptor, what better advice to others than “stop disrupting”. It is also to some extent true. Innovation in newsrooms is increasingly about how to keep up with the changes of social platforms, and the new order of gatekeepers and devices is not changing that much.

Some of this is a smart sales pitch for the Information, a tech newsletter, but it is a useful counter-narrative to the idea that news is broken. The future, it seems, is happening all over again: professional reporters, small circulation newsletters, rich subscribers and sponsors. Somewhat ironically, across town another packed conference was hearing about the possible impact of artificial intelligence on news gathering. It seems as though there are at least some who are not quite so confident that the wave of change has passed.

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