FT: Can Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales fix the news?

This report by John Thornhill appeared first in the Financial Times magazine. We’re republishing it with the FT’s permission and you’re welcome to EDIT or TALK about it. Links may differ and there are tiny style differences but this is as close as we can replicate how the story appeared in the Financial Times. The pictures are different from those used in the magazine.

Jimmy Wales has already triggered one global information revolution. Now he is plotting a second.

As co-founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, Wales helped create one of the wonders of our digital world. Launched as an experimental project in 2001, Wikipedia sprouted into a global community of volunteer contributors who have produced more than 45 million articles in 288 languages. Now the fifth-most-visited website in the world, it has become the first refuge for schoolchildren looking to mug up on photosynthesis and for adults wanting to settle an argument about who won the 1973 World Series. It also stands out as the only one of the top 10 sites that is not a commercial enterprise.

Jimmy Wales – founder of WikiTribune and Wikipedia. WIKITRIBUNE/Francis Augusto

“The idea that, in your pocket, you’ve got this incredible storehouse of knowledge that’s completely free is kind of staggering, I mean, even today,” Wales says, as if he still cannot quite wrap his head around the phenomenon.

Setting up Wikipedia would count as a singular achievement in anyone’s career. But Wales is restless for more. From a cramped and anodyne office near London’s Paddington Station, the 51-year-old tech entrepreneur has spent the past few months planning a similar revolution in the news business. In a video announcing the formation of a new media organisation called WikiTribune, he grandly proclaimed: “The news is broken. But we’ve figured out how to fix it.”

Alarmed by the debasement of democratic debate and the proliferation of “clickbait crap” that helped Donald Trump win last year’s US presidential elections, Wales wants to bring the power of the Wiki community and the wisdom of crowds to bear on the media business by creating a hybrid model.

He believes that by enabling anybody to publish anything, the internet has undermined the traditional media’s function as the gatekeeper of accepted truth. But just as the internet has disrupted the old media, it can potentially empower the new media by harnessing the collective intelligence of users. The Wiki community could, he argues, collaborate with a small team of professional journalists to help create, check and shape a new kind of digital media organisation dedicated to providing accurate and impartial news. “The news becomes a living, evolving artefact, which is what the internet was made for,” Wales explained in the video.

In person, Wales comes across as a disarming mixture of wide-eyed naivety and worldliness, someone whose default setting is to assume the best of people even though he has been around long enough to know that many will disappoint.

In some respects, he exhibits the characteristic traits of a tech entrepreneur: a computer games-playing devotee of the libertarian writer Ayn Rand, who began his career at a Chicago derivatives trading firm and later co-founded an adult entertainment site (“a lot less interesting than it sounds”). But he has also emerged as one of the most eloquent advocates of the open-source movement, with a strong social conscience, and claims he is not particularly money-driven (a good job, given he is perhaps the most famous tech entrepreneur not to be a billionaire).

Struggling not to be swallowed by a deep sofa in WikiTribune’s temporary offices in London, Wales props himself up to explain that he has long been fascinated by the news business. “I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and I was a paper boy, delivering papers, riding a bike, a very American thing to do,” he says, his southern accent softened by years of living in the UK (he relocated when he met his future wife Kate Garvey, a PR executive he describes as “the most connected woman in London”).

In the America of Jimmy Wales’s childhood, the daily newspaper appeared to be one of the indestructible props of western life and one of the pillars of a democratic society. Every young reporter dreamed of becoming the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein and the possible disappearance of the newspaper seemed all but inconceivable.

But the rich newspaper culture that thrived in most postwar democracies was upended by the arrival of the internet. The media’s business models have also been undermined as advertising has fled to the web. Many local newspapers, including Huntsville’s original morning paper, have disappeared as online sites such as Craigslist have sucked up classified advertising. Wales believes that the collapse of local journalism has eroded a sense of civic community and probably resulted in a surge in small-town corruption. “A lot of mayors’ brother-in-laws are going to be getting rich from contracts that nobody is really digging around in and paying attention to with that loss of local journalism,” he says.

As a theoretical example of the news service he aims to provide, Wales cites the Grenfell Tower fire in London this summer, which killed 71 people. He says the traditional media tend to focus obsessively on one story before rapidly moving on to another, leaving an information vacuum. In future, he hopes local community members can help direct the work of WikiTribune journalists when such events occur, suggesting avenues to explore and co-creating a more permanent news resource that will serve a longer-term communal purpose. “We can step back and say, ‘Let’s dig deeper into an issue,’” he says.

Orit Kopel, who has worked with Wales for several years and is a co-founder of WikiTribune, says the site will help create a new genre of collaborative media. “It is very exciting. I think it will change the face of journalism just as Wikipedia changed the face of information.”

There have been other experiments in citizen journalism since the birth of the internet. Wikipedia itself spawned Wikinews, which encouraged contributors to write the news themselves. However, Wikinews never really caught the public imagination, producing a slow stream of dull stories written in antiseptic prose.

Wales argues that pure citizen journalism models have produced some interesting content from time to time but they tend to hit a wall. In his view, experienced journalists are needed to direct resources, pursue investigations, meet and cultivate sources, and edit copy. “There are things that professional journalists can do that you can’t very well do from your home armchair,” he says.

Equally, there are other areas in which the distributed knowledge of the crowd can play a more effective role than the small journalistic core. One such area, he suggests, is the Wikipedia community’s uncanny ability to sniff out fake news almost instantly. “You can’t put up a website called the Denver Guardian and say ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ and trick the Wikipedia community. They’re information obsessives. They’re very sophisticated. They spend a lot of their time evaluating the quality of sources. But there are loads of people who are easily fooled by that sort of thing,” he says.

‘You can’t trick the Wiki community. They’re information obsessives. They’re very sophisticated’

He hopes WikiTribune’s ability to sift news for its veracity and present it in a professional way will prove its distinctive edge. Another factor that has set it apart is Wales’s pledge not to accept advertising from corporate sponsors. Nor does the site charge for content. Instead, Wales appealed to potential readers to pay for this new form of journalism through donations, a similar model to that adopted by Wikipedia and The Guardian. On its current monthly run rate, WikiTribune is on course to generate about £800,000 in revenue over the next year.

Wales argues that the business models of some other digital sites mean they are driven by quantitative metrics, needed to attract advertising, rather than qualitative standards, necessary to attract trusting readers. “It’s hard for a company like Twitter because a lot of really horrible people have shown up but that’s important for their ad revenue,” he says. “I’m sure they would like to get rid of some of the horrible people but it’s hard when your metric is so tied up with being a participation platform.”

By blending professional media and community intelligence, Wales believes he can produce a vibrant new form of inclusive journalism that will address the trust deficit that afflicts so much of the traditional media. “When I talk about the community and journalists working side by side as equals, I really mean that,” he says.

Not everyone is beguiled by WikiTribune’s vision of the future of journalism. Some observers argue that Wales’s venture into media is just the latest example of the “solutionism” that appears to be an operating feature of so many tech entrepreneurs. Rather than looking to repair a damaged model, they want to solve the “problem” by creating something entirely new.

Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York, is sceptical of WikiTribune’s ambitions. “Wales’s assertion that the news is broken is a common theme but it is hard to take completely seriously, particularly given recent developments in the US,” she says in a telephone interview. “A Congressional enquiry into whether Russia intervened in the election came about almost entirely because of journalism.”

Rivals have been even more hostile. Soon after Wales announced his plans, the Daily Mail pilloried the tech entrepreneur for being a liberal luvvie and poured scorn on Wikipedia as being “riddled with inaccuracies”. WikiTribune’s defenders suggest the attack may have been partly motivated by an earlier decision by the Wikipedia community to delist the British tabloid as a reliable source.

As Bell sees it, the traditional news business is exploring more imaginative ways of telling stories and reinventing business models for the digital age, even if many of them remain fragile. This frantic experimentation is producing a rich media landscape. The public demand for credible news in the era of Brexit and Trump is also increasing, boosting subscriptions for some of the bigger newspaper brands in the US. “It is obvious everywhere you look that you have an incredibly high level of engagement with the news cycle.”

She points to long-established news organisations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder) and the FT, as well as digital upstart sites Politico and BuzzFeed. All, she says, are doing first-rate journalism. She also highlights other models of journalism such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which played a central role in co-ordinating the global coverage of tax havens stemming from the leaked Panama Papers and, more recently, the Paradise Papers.

Bell, who previously worked at The Guardian, suggests that these professional media companies are best placed to lead the charge against the purveyors of fake news. “I do not want to completely trash Jimmy’s idea because we all need people working in this area,” she says. “But they appear to be reinventing what is already there.”

The journalist entrusted with turning WikiTribune’s lofty ambitions into reality is Peter Bale, whose career has taken in spells at The Times, the Phnom Penh Post, the Centre for Public Integrity, and as president of the Global Editors Network. Bale met Wales in June and signed up for WikiTribune soon afterwards. “I thought it was by far the most interesting project in journalism right now,” he says.

Given the limited number of journalists at his disposal (currently 10), Bale must be selective in the topics he covers. “We are not going to go head-to-head with Reuters,” he says. So far, the content on the pilot site seems unremarkable. There are articles on the big global stories of the moment, including Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.

But the choice of subjects suggests that WikiTribune will not skirt controversial subjects. One of its earliest interviews was a Q&A with Bill Browder, the hedge fund manager and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, who has championed the international sanctioning of individuals linked to the death of Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Despite WikiTribune’s commitment to neutrality, Wales argues that it is perfectly defensible to give a platform to contentious figures so long as registered users have a right to comment.

He also wants the site to generate copy depending on reader demand. If a community of readers wants a particular issue addressed, WikiTribune may hire a journalist to deepen coverage in that area. On Wales’s rough rule of thumb, 500 supporters paying £15 a month would be sufficient to pay for one full-time journalist. He suspects that some popular subjects, such as computer games or crypto-currencies, are massively under-covered by traditional media.

One of the things we want to do is experiment and see what people are willing to support financially,” says Wales. WikiTribune has already surveyed its supporters, asking them to identify which subjects they most wanted to be covered. The top three areas were: politics, science and technology.

‘It’s clearly a series of bad business choices — as is my career — no ads, no paywall, no investors’

Perhaps the most critical issue determining whether WikiTribune flies or crashes is what support it receives from the Wiki community. As yet, it seems too early to judge. It may prove difficult to reconcile the views of conflicting contributors on contentious, breaking news stories. Without doubt, WikiTribune will also attract the attentions of those who want to game the system and to troll their political opponents or corporate rivals. To give a sense of the scale of the challenge, President Donald Trump’s Wikipedia page has been edited more than 23,000 times, an average of six edits per day. It contains 639 footnotes.

Bale is hopeful that WikiTribune will be able to create a “safe space” where readers and journalists can have conversations in good faith and co-create insightful content. But, he says, readers’ comments sections on many media sites show how things can go wrong in the unforgiving world of the internet. “Jimmy has a passionate belief in the goodness of the crowd,” he says. “I am a lot more sceptical. Will the community improve or vandalise my copy?”

Unlike Wikipedia, which is run as a charitable foundation, WikiTribune is a normal UK limited company, which will eventually try to turn a profit. Wales accepts this is a tough proposition. “[It’s] clearly a series of bad business choices — as is my career — no ads, no paywall, trying to get people to send us money and no investors in a hard industry.”

But he argues that launching this project on a shoestring budget is a great discipline and enables the organisation to be truly independent. “I’m sure I could have gone and done a great presentation in Silicon Valley and raised some money but that would have put me on a path where I would lose creative control and that really is very meaningful to me,” he says.

“I’ve never been against people making money, that’s great, but you pretty soon get investors who say, ‘Oh gee, you’ve got X million page views per month, why are you leaving the money on the table from advertising, let’s monetise that way.’ And, it’s like, well, I’m not 100 per cent opposed but I want to do it when it’s right for our community and right for the project and there’s a real justification for it.”

He acknowledges such talk is premature. WikiTribune has first to defy critics and convince readers that it can create something valuable and unique. He is conscious that when Wikipedia launched it was just “an obscure bunch of people playing around on the internet”. Given Wales’s reputation, WikiTribune is being born in the glare of public attention.

In his “Hello, world” message when launching the pilot site at the end of October, Wales emphasised that WikiTribune was still an experimental idea, writing, “A big part of the point of this letter is to invite journalists who might be excited to write with awe or gleeful disappointment at our launch to relax a notch or two.

“This is the launch of a project to build a news service,” he continued. “That’s why it says ‘Pilot’ right at the top.”

This report by John Thornhill appeared first in the Financial Times magazine. We’re republishing it with the FT’s permission and you’re welcome to EDIT or TALK about it.

John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor

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