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

Grassroots journalists have a new means to take their brand of news beyondthe blog. It’s called Wikinews.

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

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

Multiple Points of View

“Wikis encourage multiple points of view and have a strong neutralitypolicy,” 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 theeditorial pages of the Internet. “A blog is one person’s analysis of thenews,” he said.

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

“Wikis are more about group voice than individual voice,” he toldTechNewsWorld.

“The group voice emerges from having lots of people being able to edit andmodify the same page freely,” he explained.

Facelessness Problem

“You have an open, collaborative practice for developing content that worksbecause the barriers are very low for anyone to make a contribution,” headded. “So you end up getting a more diverse body of participants.”

While on its face the Wiki model sounds more likely toproduce trustworthy information than a blog, the facelessness of Wikisgive 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 producingencyclopedia articles, which have a timeless element about them, questionsremain as to how the model will work in a time-sensitive environment likenews.

Wales maintained that a Wiki community can respond swiftly to breakingevents. “When news breaks, people are very quickly synthesizing the news andfilling in background stories,” he said.

For example, he noted, within a few hours following the catastrophic eventson September 11, 2001, articles were posted to the Wikipedia on architects whodesigned buildings involved in the attack, histories of the airlinesinvolved 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 kindof 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 thesynthetic aspects of the news found there.

“It’s all sourced to mainstream news organizations,” media critic Kennedyobserved. “Maybe over time, people are going to do something different fromthat and be reporters, but at the moment it seems that people are justrewriting the wires, crediting them and putting that up as Wikinews. This isa breakthrough?”

Wales admitted that he doesn’t expect original reporting to be a significantpart 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 themainstream news. It’s going to be a synthesis of the mainstream news. Itseems unlikely to me that people will be going out and doing interviews andthings like that.”

SocialText’s Mayfield added: “There’s a question about whether there’s goingto be enough motivation to go after original sources. I don’t think it’sgoing to be competitive with hard-nosed, investigative journalism. That’sthe role for experts with access.”

“This group is going to be better at investigating deep into publiclyavailable materials, than they will be getting at privately held materials,”he said.

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  • Note that Wikipedia is not a typical wiki in this respect. Most wiki communities encourage their users to sign their contributions or to make their authorship obvious in other ways.

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