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Open-Source News? Wiki Builds a New Kind of Journalism

By John P. Mello Jr.
Nov 30, 2004 7:43 AM PT

Grassroots journalists have a new means to take their brand of news beyond the blog. It's called Wikinews.

Open-Source News? Wiki Builds a New Kind of Journalism

Launched by the folks that brought you Wikipedia, Wikinews, now in beta, will try to bring to current events its style of collaborative authoring that has showered acclaim to its online encyclopedia.

Information created through Wikis, which are Web pages that can be modified by anyone with a browser, stand in stark contrast with blogs, those single-minded Web logs favored by many online journalists.

Multiple Points of View

"Wikis encourage multiple points of view and have a strong neutrality policy," Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the Wikipedia, told TechNewsWorld.

"We are hopeful that we will get a high quality synthesis of the news," he said.

That's quite different from blogs, he maintained, which are like the editorial pages of the Internet. "A blog is one person's analysis of the news," he said.

With a blog, people create communities around themselves, added Ross Mayfield, CEO of SocialText, a Palo Alto, California, maker of collaborative software for the enterprise, which incorporates Wiki and blog technology.

"Wikis are more about group voice than individual voice," he told TechNewsWorld.

"The group voice emerges from having lots of people being able to edit and modify the same page freely," he explained.

Facelessness Problem

"You have an open, collaborative practice for developing content that works because the barriers are very low for anyone to make a contribution," he added. "So you end up getting a more diverse body of participants."

While on its face the Wiki model sounds more likely to produce trustworthy information than a blog, the facelessness of Wikis give some observers pause.

"With blogs, over time you can figure out who you can trust," Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix, told TechNewsWorld. "With the Wikipedia, you don't know who's contributing to it."

Although the Wiki model has proven itself a viable vehicle for producing encyclopedia articles, which have a timeless element about them, questions remain as to how the model will work in a time-sensitive environment like news.

Wales maintained that a Wiki community can respond swiftly to breaking events. "When news breaks, people are very quickly synthesizing the news and filling in background stories," he said.

For example, he noted, within a few hours following the catastrophic events on September 11, 2001, articles were posted to the Wikipedia on architects who designed buildings involved in the attack, histories of the airlines involved and profiles of terrorist groups tied to the episode.

Ersatz News

"It may be that the deadline-driven nature of news may self-select what kind of news converage Wikinews can provide," SocialText's Mayfield conceded, "but I wouldn't underestimate their ability to swarm around major events."

Newshounds sniffing the Wikinews site today might be disappointed by the synthetic aspects of the news found there.

"It's all sourced to mainstream news organizations," media critic Kennedy observed. "Maybe over time, people are going to do something different from that and be reporters, but at the moment it seems that people are just rewriting the wires, crediting them and putting that up as Wikinews. This is a breakthrough?"

Wales admitted that he doesn't expect original reporting to be a significant part of the site -- at least for the immediate future.

"It will be similar to a blog," he said. "It's going to be reactive to the mainstream news. It's going to be a synthesis of the mainstream news. It seems unlikely to me that people will be going out and doing interviews and things like that."

SocialText's Mayfield added: "There's a question about whether there's going to be enough motivation to go after original sources. I don't think it's going to be competitive with hard-nosed, investigative journalism. That's the role for experts with access."

"This group is going to be better at investigating deep into publicly available materials, than they will be getting at privately held materials," he said.

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