Essay by Jean-Jacques Subrenat
On 16 January 2019, WikiTribune (WT) community member Brandon Sergent put the candid question ‘’WikiTribune Dead?’’. In his very short text (11 lines, quotes included), Sergent simply provided a link to an article by Mathew Ingram published in the Columbia Journalism Review in November 2018.
In keeping with current WT practice, Sergent’s piece just echoes a more substantial news item published elsewhere, and invites readers to react or respond to the question: ‘’Can (WT) be revived?’’ It is interesting to note that this question, which WT community members such as I view as existential, has not elicited the slightest reaction or comment. Is this silence a show of respect in a mourning family, or are there deeper questions that our community is shy to discuss in public?
As an early supporter of WT, I began by asking about the ways in which a community member could contribute (in addition to a donation) by writing articles. Since accepting my first text, WT published all 17 of the articles I submitted, this current one being my 18th. Having been part of this interesting experience, I would like to offer some thoughts on WT’s evolution, and on some of the challenges facing WT, and modern journalism in general. My remarks will cover three aspects: WT’s mission statement, its explicit or implicit guidelines, and the involvement of the WT community.
WIKITRIBUNE’S MISSION STATEMENT
When you open the WT website and click on the ‘’About Us’’ tab, you see a straightforward statement: ‘’WikiTribune is a news platform that is primarily about volunteers doing neutral, factual, high-quality news’’ (my emphasis). ‘’WT is a news platform’’ is of course a welcome affirmation. But it also justifies the reader in placing expectations at a rather high level: for anyone who regularly consults (perhaps even enjoys) The New York Times, The Guardian, Politico.eu, Le Monde, Die Welt, or other newspapers with a solid reputation, what does she/he expect to find in WT which could bring added value? In the early stages of WT, there was some reticence to accept long reads, thought pieces or essays, under the assumption that these can only be written by confirmed journalists, whereas community members would be more active in layout, fact-checking, or other technical tasks.
When reviewing the total production of WT since its inception, one is struck by two facts: (a) for the most part, in-depth articles were penned by a dozen journalists, but also by a handful of community members; and (b) over time, the number of substantive articles has declined. Some of the longer articles were worthy of the best newspapers or magazines, e.g. on the Minimum Wage experiment in Finland, on Cryptocurrencies, or on Global Power & Influence in 2018 and beyond. Similar articles have not been produced in recent months, or at least have not been published on WT.
EXPLICIT OR IMPLICIT GUIDELINES
– ‘’NEUTRALITY’’. However worthy the concept of neutrality may seem at first sight, the rising tide of fake news requires journalism to avoid the trap of manipulation. Today as in the past, a journalist’s task is to answer this question: ‘’In the current circumstances, what must the educated citizen and reader know in order to comprehend the issue at hand?’’ On the social media platform used in the WT community, first Slack and now Discord, I brought up this issue a few months ago. Taking the example of the Creationist movement in the United States, I asked whether journalism could serve any educational, civic or fact-finding mission by giving Creationists as much space and credence as to scientists and qualified educators, on issues such as the age of the solar system, the Earth, living organisms, or human evolution. Those who bothered to respond, limited themselves to re-affirming that neutrality is an absolute principle. As a WT community member, I now see this absolute principle of neutrality not as an asset, but as a growing liability in a world where democracy and the rule of law are constantly put in danger by the loss of a critical sense, or by censorship, or by self-censorship.
– ‘’FACTUAL’’. As far as I can see, articles published by WT all abide by this tenet, and the interest of our community in fact-checking should ensure that this remains true.
– ‘’HIGH-QUALITY’’. For the reasons explained above about Neutrality, I must express concern about the growing trend to start a topic with a headline, followed by a few lines and links to outside sources. On WT, over the past months, so many topics have been started, and only minimally augmented by real reporting or journalism. The very short piece I referred to at the beginning (‘WikiTribune Dead?’) is an example of this minimalism. And while this trend reflects the choice of community members who feel more confident making remarks in the social media space of WT, rather than in writing articles, in the longer run WikiTribune runs the risk of restricting itself to a small community niche of fact-checking and website design. I am not suggesting that fact-checking or website design are unimportant, but a news platform needs a different balance between content (articles) and tools for improvement (fact-checking, design, etc). I am saying that, like any other media ventune, WT cannot afford to neglect the competition factor: competition with well-established newspapers offering paperless versions (NYT, The Guardian, etc), TV channels, radio stations, and now social media. And I am saying that trying to ”break news” is futile for a small entity such as WT. What our community can do, indeed has done well, is to provide thought pieces, analyses, discussions, interviews.
INVOLVEMENT OF THE WIKITRIBUNE COMMUNITY
The Mission Statement states clearly that ’’The WikiTribune community strives to create articles with a very high degree of transparency and accountability. The most important thing to understand is that you can edit every story at WikiTribune.’’ Appealing as this open-house editing mode may seem, it does beg a question: who has the expertise in any considered subject, and the ability to write in a clear and informative way? Is editing simply a cumulative process of corrections made by anyone, or should it be guided by some values and standards?
Since the summer of 2018, there has been occasional debate about the respective roles of journalists and community members in WT. In two interviews, Jimmy Wales gave his view that community members could not be expected to carry out the tasks of journalists. And yet, since the early days of WT, the Founder confirmed that journalists and community members are considered on an equal footing. As a community member having contributed 18 full-length articles published by WT, I am confident that the binary, black-and-white distinction between journalists and community members is quite artificial, and should not be a policy within WT.
This brings up a fundamental issue about the desired degree of similarity or difference between WikiTribune and Wikipedia, both founded by Jimmy Wales. Having contributed articles to, and made corrections in Wikipedia, I know and respect its editorial hierarchy, as well as its procedures. When I became a contributor to WT, I did not expect to simply replicate Wikipedia, because the requirements of journalism are somewhat different from those of an encyclopaedia, and even Wikipedia does rely on the judgment of editors. Responsible writing and benevolent oversight (which is not synonymous with dictatorship) are necessary components in building trust: trust among community members, and more widely trust between WikiTribune and its readers. As a community contributor and reader, I encourage more clarity in our collective outlook and process, because I believe in WikiTribune’s potential, even beyond its English readership.