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Wikinews is not YET really very good

Thanks to Simon Waldman, Director of Digital Publishing at London’s The Guardian, for his recent blog about Wikinews.

Wikinews…dare I say what I think? I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this. In some circles it is pretty much blasphemy. And, there’s a fair chance that if I do actually say it, I’m going to get thrown off the net or something.

This is an odd comment Simon. Other bloggers already voiced some doubts about Wikinews, and the Wikimedia community itself is one of the most diverse community on the net. In our project, people are essentially united by a goal, producing free knowledge and making it available to the highest number of people on Earth. This does not mean we all agree on how to achieve that goal, quite the opposite actually… We are very cautious of not only allowing all criticism but even nurturing it :-). Only diverse people with diverse opinions will permit us to avoid groupthinking and approach the ultimate requirement of neutrality. Wikinews creation was not supported by all Wikipedians and its birth was not without pains. I was personally quite opposed to the initial project and this criticism allowed some of the principles initially planned to be dropped. I mostly did not want the project to be founded with too many set-in-stone rules, but rather to allow it to grow at its own pace, organically, and for the wikinewsies communities to build their own set of guidelines. While it is important that a goal is clearly stated and a couple of principles defined (freedom of content, free access, collaborative editing and neutrality), all other details should be handled over time. Critical thinking is welcome from inside as well as outside of the community. This said, you make very good points… and other people already quite rightly commented on them. Other comments, I just cannot support 🙂 I also think you are missing a very important point which I will detail further down.

But, just between you and I: Right now, Wikinews really isn’t very good. Before I expand – two bits of background : first I should add I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia (particularly the way it covers news – see below); second I’m also a huge proponent of citizen journalism. But this fusion of the two simply isn’t doing it for me. So what’s wrong? Well, look at it and be honest. Is there a story there that you haven’t seen elsewhere? Does it even half fulfill the ’service’ bit of being a news service? Not just that – if you look at it today – does it make you think that you really must come back tomorrow if you want to know what’s going on in the world? Yes, they might have had a scoop or two but at the same time, they’ve also failed to cover hundreds of stories that happen every day – consistently presenting at best a handful of headlines that it would be easier to read elsewhere. I want it to be great – but in a world of free news sites, blogs, newsreaders and rss feeds, I can’t quite see what it’s bringing to the table. Even when it starts to fill up some of the many gaps in its coverage.

When I joined Wikipedia, it was just a year old. It was more than three years ago. Only one project existed then, and only one language, english. The english wikipedia itself could barely be called a resource. The gaps of information were absolutely huge. I had the opportunity to be one of the foundators of the french speaking project but during months, it meant grunt work, setting basic rules of community management, starting articles and hoping to see them grow, wandering on forums to try to get editors (as no serious media bothered to talk about us). But the good thing is that we had time to grow, to build ourselves and to evolve according to our needs and community size and nature. Wikinews was never allowed this development stage. It is currently still an infant (a couple of months old), nurtured by a small community of very dedicated editors. Should an infant be criticized for not being yet able to speak properly ? I do not think so. Naturally, your criticism that it is not covering enough news, is not organised enough, is not informing you enough is correct, but this criticism might be too hasty.

Let’s compare what they’re doing with their mission statement

Wikinews seeks to create a free source of news, where every human being is invited to contribute reports about events large and small, either from direct experience, or summarized from elsewhere.

Well – every human being may have been invited. But until now, few seem to have bothered to RSVP. I know it’s early days – but it’s not that early.

It is that early. It is important to realise that wikinews is not only about reporting news. It is about building a community to do so. When a blogger reports an event, he only needs the information to do so, to access his blog, to think of what he will say and to type it. I do not say this is easy of course, critical thinking never is, but the blogger does not need to take much into account other human beings to do so. Wiki is a very different process. Participation requires to enter the project and respect the community expectations (guidelines of editing, which is usually not very difficult; but also guidelines of behavior, which is much more problematic for some people). To become a real community, the expectations must be collaboratively thought, then drafted, then discussed, then meet consensus, then explained to any newcomers, and changed again as the community itself grows and evolves. This means that a wiki community does not only need editors of text, but also people interested in setting guidelines (the policy makers), in seeking consensus or in working in conflict resolution (the listeners, the mediators, the arbitrators…), in welcoming newbies (the teachers and nurturers), in creating controversy to limit groupthinking (the devil advocates), in informing the other related communities (the bridge makers or glue people) etc…. There is a whole world to create along with the news themselves. Not everyone likes to do all this. My experience with Wikipedia showed me that most editors just prefer … editing. A real community only arises when a significant group exist, which will include enough of those interested in policy making or communicating. And this is only when a real community exists that it becomes FUN.

The real problem is that almost every story seems to have been ’summarized from elsewhere’ and there is very little stuff there from ‘direct experience’. The end result is – I’m afraid to say – that of a very patchy wire service. It feels like a version of world events from people who’ve only ever experienced them through a computer screen. While Wikinews aims to be a useful resource of its own, it will also provide an alternative to proprietary news agencies like the Associated Press or Reuters; that is, it will allow independent media outfits to get a high quality feed of news free of charge to complement their own reporting. This is a laudable aim. But if they keep heading in their current direction at their current speed, it seems it’s going to be a long time before they’re output turns into an alternative to AP or Reuters. And in a world of RSS etc, there is already a wealth of non-proprietary content out there. Some more – this time from their Manifesto

Wikinews will already be useful even if we start out by having relatively few original reports – because it will provide free, neutral, aggregated summaries of the news from elsewhere.

Well, if we’re honest – I think Google News does – and always will do – a much better job here of hoovering up – predominately – all the wire stories that get propagated onto different sites. I won’t even compare it with the experience you can get from a newsreader – even without changing the default feeds. Again, take a look at the service – they’re currently pulling together about a dozen stories a day, it’s a long way short of being useful.

It will already be useful even if the subject range which we cover will initially be full of gaps – because in these subject areas, we will already benefit from the collaborative wiki model. It can grow to become more useful every day.

Now – here’s an important point – and why it’s very different to Wikipedia. An encylopaedia grows to become more useful every day because all of yesterday’s efforts are still valid today. Entries are built up over time, layer upon layer. Gaps get filled over time. However, a news operation starts with a clean slate every day. It only grows ‘more useful’ every day, if your news gathering gets better every day. Do nothing for a day, and you slip of the map. A scoop on Tuesday is worth very little on Thursday. Being ‘useful’ in the news world depends heavily on dogged consistency and Wikinews is still scoring very few points in that department.

All this is correct. Indeed, contrarywise to the encyclopedia business, quality requires daily coverage rather than incremental building. One point I would raise though is the question of the audience. Wikinewsies do not seem to all agree on what the audience should be; while some wish to replace newswires, others first see in Wikinews a solution to cover local news. Wikinews does not try cover all news, but only news which is interesting and of importance to its readers. For this reason it expects to focus on news which is less available in mainstream news, particularly news of strictly local interest. If so, the future might not be so much a unique portal page listing a collection of local and global news all mixed together, but rather a collection of portal pages adapted to an area. Not even a portal page for Canada and another for the USA, and yet another for Australia, but rather one for an ecoregion and which might be of interest to the local community only. We could ultimately envision that a set of villages or a city has one or two local editors, focusing in maintaing a local page presenting at the time global news, as well as report of local events, such as the tennis tournament, city council, building of the local university, train being blocked by the snow… all these little events which makes the lives of real people. Google news will never do this. Local newspapers are doing it, but in a proprietary fashion. Anyone could be a point of contact in a region. Anyone could become an active producer of information rather than staying a passive consumer. Wikinews, just like blogs, is providing a mean, a plateform so that anyone has an easy way to become involved.

Do I have any suggestions for improvement? Yes – all of which are very much against the way they do things. 1. Focus. On something. Anything. A geographic region. A topic. A handful of key ongoing stories. Anything to make sure they don’t spread themselves so thinly. Build up one area of success, and move on. Wikipedia might have been able to grow slowly – but this is much more visible. Don’t leave yourself so exposed by trying to overreach so early.

Though I basically agree on the idea, this is just not really possible. Editors write about what they know about and are happy to write about. They are volunteers… One may try to steer them in a certain direction, but no more.

2. Demand that people only write from direct experience. I’d rather read a first person account of getting stuck in a train or even a school fete, than a rehashed wire story about a major global event that has been covered everywhere else. If you believe in ‘citizen journalists’ let them behave like reporters not sub-editors cutting down wire copy.

This is very controversial. One of the major criticism made to Wikipedia is verifiability (or rather lack of…). If not THE biggest criticism. Being told we are NOT an anthoritative source now sticks to our boots, and wikinews being a primary source exposes us to the same criticism from classical newspapers. So, most of the current report are VERY careful to cite authoritative sources to reassure readers of our seriousness.

3. Get an editor. Yes, I know it’s a fundamentally evil idea in the world of wikis, but this needs someone (or even a dedicated group of someones) to knock it into shape. To get things going by asking key bloggers to write. To set some sort of agenda. To hit some sort of target for daily output. News needs this much more than an encyclopaedia (remember OhMyNews has a full time editorial team of 55)

Probably out of question. An editor (or in this case an editor-in-chief) here would be someone paid to do what other people might very do themselves. Being paid or having an official title, an editor in chief would get an aura of authority which could be dangerous for our organic process. But you are correct that any wikinews would need a couple of leaders of ideas to be successful. Leaders should not become leaders because paid or given a title, but should become leaders because other editors recognise their leadership and accept it. Such leaders exist on all major projects. We just need to give them time to arise.

4. Connect with the blogosphere. Here’s another big difference between an encyclopaedia and a news service. You don’t find bloggers writing encyclopaedia entries. But you do find them writing news stories – or at least reporting what they see. People’s first preference if they come across something interesting is almost certainly going to be to put it on their own blog first. Or on Slashdot. Get bloggers to submit their own stories. Get others to submit bloggers stories. Do something technically smart that I can’t even contemplate.

I think Erik Moëller really tried to connect the bloggers with the wikinewsies. Aside from a technical neat feature, what would stimulate you in joining wikinews community ? Bloggers are a very individualistic lot, while wikinewsies are cooperative first. What is preventing you to participate ? The lack of personal recognition (no display of authorship on the news article) ? The neutrality requirement (no personal opinion allowed, no activism) ? The fact your text will be modified by others ? Explain please.

And my real tip. Stick to Wikipedia This is my best advice of all. One of Wikipedia’s great achievements has been the way it covers news stories (much more effectively than Wikinews, incidentally – compare Wikinews coverage of the Spanish EU referendum with Wikipedia’s). Keep it there. Stick to what’s brilliant and don’t let the ‘hubris of success’ send you off down this cul-de-sac.

Let me tell you a little story… (I love stories…) Last december, Jimmy Wales, Angela Beesley and myself (Florence Devouard) went to New York to meet with a Foundation. The day before the meeting, a little meetup between wikipedians was organised in a restaurant. About 20 people enjoyed a day all together. Meetups are always very enjoyable because of the opportunity to meet people one has sometimes known for years without seeing. For Angela (who is british) and myself (french), this was a special week-end, far away from our home and culture (and for myself, far away from my language and local french speaking community). Angela and I, as representants of the community on the board, are the two non american members, and of course, I am a sort of living proof (:-)) our project is NOT ONLY an english project, driven by english community. During the meetup, a journalist from Wired was present, Dan Pink. He was litterally assaulted by some of the editors for the whole afternoon… Following that meetup, a long, detailed, and rather pleasant article was published this month. Telling the story of Wikipedia, through interesting and lively personal experiences, enhanced by hand drawings of some of the editors present at the meetup. See Sj report on this . Still… This long detailed article reporting Wikipedia, published in a traditional magazine… is just, to my opinion, missing the point. It basically reports only the process by which the articles are created, the life of wikipedians… Hardly any mention of the fact Wikipedia is not ONLY an english encyclopedia (okay, 8 words). Or of the Wikimedia Foundation, the over-arching charitable organisation, which aims not only at supporting the development of the project, but also in making information available worldwide. Building the encyclopedia is a mean. But the goal is free access to free information in as many language as possible. The project Daniel Pink is talking about in his article is only a tiny portion of the project, it is only part of the reality. It is missing the bubbling aching desire of the whole international community to work with, to share with other editors from everywhere. It is missing a significant part of the job done by participants, all those trying to maintain a multilingual plateform for edition, all those trying to publish multilingual cd roms, all those trying to make bridges between all communities, while preserving autonomy of each. All those trying to set up a « political decision system » which is respectful of all individuals and all local communities. There is so much more in Wikipedia than just the 50 000 american cities (more or less) added by RamMan to the english wikipedia (with all due respect and appreciation to RamMan) ! Why does it matter ? It matters because the article reported a « truth » but this truth is distorted in an english mirror. The facts reported are facts, but is the description fair ? No. It is not fair description. Why did Dan reported only such a little part of such a grand project ? Is it because he focused on his audience only ? An american audience, which he suspected would just not be interested in knowing that the german speaking wikipedia is nearly half the size of the english speaking one, or an audience he suspected would just not care at all to know there is censorship in China and Wikipedia could help inform chinese readers, or an audience he suspected would just not care at all to know there are kids without teaching books in some african countries ? Or is it because he himself does not realise there is SOMETHING aside from the english speaking world ? I have no idea. I am just left with speculations. His article is good…unusual, very nice, but it is really a one-sided view. What I see is that most english newspapers articles talking of Wikipedia only mention the english wikipedia, or if they mention there are other languages, it is a 8 words sentence. And I feel the same is happening for Wikinews. It is certainly significant that some people think of it as an english project first of all. Why does it matter ? It matters because most english speaking people do not really lack information. Information is everywhere. On TV, on radio stations, newspapers, internet web sites, blogs. The issue is not having access to information. It is rather being able to get fair, accurate, unbiaised, organised, aggregated and complete information. Bloggers, RSS feeds will really help … This is also, to a lesser extent, true of other major languages, such as the french, the german, spanish etc… But aside from those languages ? Are you so certain Reuters… covers so well what is happening in Burkina Faso? May one find a fair report of Iraq war (euh, invasion ?) in arab on the internet ? Is there a google news in poland (I go check… no, no google news in polish…) The strength wikinews will show in the future (hopefully…) is that news will be in many languages, available to readers in their mother tongue, which they best understand. This will happen as editors (understand : involved people, who want to become actors of their own future) exist everywhere. The second strength of wikinews will be that news will not be written with a single cultural perspective, because participants are multicultural. Faced with the comment : « but what is wikinews telling me that Reuters did not ? », it might be the answer. Give it a chance and join…