Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is launching an online news service that will aim to counter fake news, using a mixture of professional reporters and volunteer contributors.
Wales’ new site, Wikitribune, will be both ad-free and free-to-read, relying on regular donations from supporters. That money will go towards paying professional journalists, covering a range of subjects from US and UK politics, through to science and technology.
On the surface, it looks like an attempt to broaden the model behind Wikipedia, with a degree of emphasis on community contributions. Those who become supporters of the site will have some say in its editorial direction – around which subject areas and threads its reporters will focus on. There are also plans for readers to fact-check articles, as well as sub-edit writing on the site, similar to Wikipedia.
While that may sound like a recipe for populist appeal over editorial control, Wales says the core of the site is a dedication to facts. “We want to bring some of that fact-based, fact-checking mentality that we know from Wikipedia to news,” Wales told Wired. “Humans haven’t fundamentally changed from the way we were 100 years ago or 500 years ago. People have a thirst for quality information.”
There will also be a focus on transparency, with full reporter’s transcripts, video and audio of interviews open to readers. Contributors will be able to suggest edits to any articles published, but these will need to be approved by a member of staff before going live. Wales says he hopes this mixture of outsourced fact checking with a donation-based business model will lead to journalism “that’s not about chasing clicks”.
The impulse for establishing Wikitribune came in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Wales said. While he promised himself he’d withhold judgment on Trump for 100 days, the now-infamous comments by Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway about the presidential inauguration changed his mind. “It was when Kellyanne Conway said ‘alternative facts’,” Wales told Wired, “and I was just like are you kidding me? We have to do something about this.’”
The site is looking for 10 journalists to begin with, following a crowdfunding campaign that aims to pre-sell donation “support packages”. There are already a number of advisors to the site, including journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, and model/actress Lily Cole.
Wales’ plans, as well intentioned as they are, have been questioned by some journalism experts. “There are a variety of people who – if it does this right – will view it as a trusted platform,” Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told the BBC. “But another 10 to 20 people aren’t going to ‘fix the news’.
“There’s certainly a model for non-profit news that can be successful if it’s done on a relatively small scale and produces a product that is unique. But I have a hard time seeing this scale up into becoming a massive news organisation.”
Whether or not the site is a success, it’s further evidence of the shifting power relationship between traditional news sources and tech companies. Apple, Facebook and Google have all had a hand in changing the media landscape over the past decade, arguably catalyzing the fake news phenomena by creating ad-based echo chambers and prioritizing algorithms over human editors. Now those companies are making moves to address the problem, the question is whether it’s too little too late.
Could a more drastic rethink of journalism work if it borrows the Wikipedia model? Or is Benton right, that what works for an online encyclopedia maybe be hard to scale for a fully fledged news organization?