Thursday, April 28, 2005


Mainstream media is at its lowest point in over three decades, forced to fend off charges of plagiarism, cronyism, fabrication and political bias. Can anything be done to stop the rot? The folks behind Wikipedia think they have the answer.

By Matthew Yeomans

It’s March 28th, 2005 and the newsroom is buzzing with today’s major breaking news story: an earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale has hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Sitting at his PC in Canada, Amgine pens the original dispatch, minutes after news of the eruption appears on the US Geological Survey website. Soon after, a contributor identified only by the Internet Protocol address,, adds warnings from the Thai government about the risk of possible Tsunamis. In San Jose, California, David Vasquez gives the story a quick edit while, in the same city, another contributor, David Speakman surfs the web for related news stories to add to the package. Meanwhile, in Bogota, Colombia, Julianortega is working on the Spanish translation of the story, in Germany, SonicR is doing the same for the German edition and in Ireland, CGorman is checking the sources for the story. By the end of the 24-hour news cycle, this one story will have been edited over 200 times by over 30 different people.

None of these dedicated reporters and editors is paid for their efforts. In fact, most of them don’t know the first thing about professional journalism. All however are as passionate about their craft as the top earners at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News or the BBC. What’s more, they’re convinced they can offer better journalism than anything professional news organizations currently supply; one stripped of all bias, covering areas long ago neglected by a mainstream media and produced by thousands of committed citizen correspondents all over the world. This is the dream of Wikinews.

Objectivity, no political agenda and the puritanical pursuit of truth? Surely that’s a pipedream? It’s certainly not a historical trait of American media. Yet if the lessons of the last year have taught us anything, it is that we dismiss citizen journalism at our peril.

In the wake of Rathergate and the rise of the blogosphere as a shaper and barometer of public opinion, the individual’s power to publish and the technology and services to track this surge of new media has flourished. If bloggers represent the first chapter in this new emancipation of information then collaborating, organized citizen journalism looks likely to carry the story of who gets to be the gatekeeper of the news further still.

So who are these neophyte white knights intent on rescuing journalism from its natural base instincts and willing to give up their social life in the process? And in these days where anonymous sourcing is the norm, and where fabrication of quotes and even people continue to dog the profession, what can they teach the mainstream media?

Dan Grey first discovered Wikinews on December 26, the day the Tsunami leveled large parts of South East Asia. At the time, Wikinews was just a few weeks old and its homepage contained more information about what the citizen news service wanted to be than actual stories. Nevertheless, Dan decided that he, too, could be a Wikinews contibrutor.

“There were very few people on it so I thought I would play around with it, make some changes and see what happens,” says Dan, who goes by the name Dan100 online. Amazed at his ability to make whatever changes he saw fit, he kept coming back.

Dan’s a fresh-faced, bouncy and bespectacled 24-year-old young man. He’s got a wiry, youthful frame and close-cropped red hair that sticks up like a tennis-ball on his round head. He lives just outside Reading, England where he works as a school science technician.

Dan’s an avid news junkie but hasn’t bought a newspaper in years, preferring to get most of his information through RSS news feeds from his favorite web sites or via Google News. He works on Wikinews at night and at weekends at his home in Caversham, where he lives with his parents, writing up the major news stories he thinks are important.

Since it launched in late November 2004, the English language version of Wikinews has published over 1700 articles and spawned 10 other Wikinews operations in languages such as Romanian, Spanish and Swedish. The English language version credits hundreds of contributors, though, in reality, perhaps only 15 or 20 can be considered core Wikinewsers.

At present, nearly all of the stories posted on the site are overviews of news coverage published elsewhere in mainstream media. Dan uses major news sites – the BBC, the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post to name a few – as his sources. Talk to any active Wikinewser and they’ll talk enthusiastically about producing original breaking news. However, almost none of them have any journalism experience. So instead they play to their strengths and their core beliefs – evaluating news coverage on many other websites and then reproducing it in aggregate for the reader, stripped of the editorial bias they see in mainstream news.

Dan likes to cover medical and military issues – areas that he follows carefully and where he often sees the mainstream media slip up. As soon as he thinks his story is ready for publication he posts it on the Wikinews site for the whole world to see. Then he sits back and waits for someone else, anyone else, to improve it.

That’s right, Wikinews is the only news operation in the world that publishes first then edits later. Click on any page and you‘ll see a button prominently displayed with the words “Edit This Page.” Think you know more about the news event being described? Add what you know (though don’t forget to list your sources). See a mistake? Change it. It’s that simple. All changes are archived and can be reverted back if necessary. Also, each story has a discussion area where contributors debate the merits and faults of the reporting and the editing.

“If I’ve got typos in there they’ll take it out; if I’ve misquoted something they can check it against the source materials I provide,” says Dan.

From the advent of the telegraph to the birth of radio then TV then the Internet, journalism has been shaped by changes in technology. The newest of these innovations, blogging software, has dramatically punched holes in the walls separating those who have the power to publish and those who simply consume the news. Other citizen news sites have shown the potential for volunteer reporting – OhMyNews in Korea, IndyMedia that grew out of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests and the technology bible Slashdot spring to mind. But no site has yet given citizens the world over quite such a collaborative power to publish.

The beauty of wiki software – first developed in 1995 by Ward Cunningham – is that it harnesses the interactive and democratic potential of the Internet better than any other piece of free software. But Wikis may well have still been seen as a geeky toy of the technosphere were it not for Jimmy Wales’ decision to use Wiki software in his people-powered online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s success has spawned something of a Wiki-empire. Jimmy Wales heads up both the privately held, and the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Together, they manage 10 other Wiki projects, including Wiktionary, the for-profit WikiCities and, of course, Wikinews. As Wikipedia’s traffic has doubled in the last year so has the cost to Jimmy Wales of running his Wiki empire. Earlier this year, Wikimedia started a fundraising drive on its various sites. It raised $75,000 in just 10 days, all through small individual pledges.

Wikinews has inherited its most important guiding principles from Wikipedia: all Wiki communities try to get as much consensus as possible and all stories must be adhere to a Neutral Point of View.

“Everyone who works on Wikinews understands Neutral Point of View. It doesn’t mean no point of view, it means giving equal time to sides of argument in their relative sizes,” explains Dan.

By the end of January, David Vasquez had been dabbling in Wikinews for nearly two months. It was only then that the San Jose resident realized something was missing – the weather report. All the major news websites have dynamic, up-to-date weather reports. Why couldn’t Wikinews provide a citizen’s version of, he thought? A designer and programmer for a leading Silicon Valley software company, David quickly went to work building a weather map of the world that could be searched, region by region.

Another Wikinews contributor named Ilya Haykinson saw what David was attempting and thought he could help out. A software programmer based in LA, Ilya wrote a quick program that automatically accessed the regional weather forecasts issued by the National Oceanographic Agency and channeled weather news feeds to corresponding cities on David’s map. Within days, Wikinews had a real-time, searchable weather map.

Vasquez lives in a small apartment in nondescript suburb of Silicon Valley sprawl. He has shoulder-length black hair; he wears a black button down shirt and black pants. He speaks in a heavy mid-western accent and he has the skin tone of a man who spends most of his time in front of a computer.

David is another nighttime Wikinews contributor (he’s known online as DV) and his passions include news from China and Las Vegas (where most of his family now lives). His Chinese wife Lui sits and listens as David describes how he juggles Wikinews and work. “I just worry that he works too hard,” she says.

Within the wiki community, burnout is a common trait. Many contributors to Wikipedia and Wikinews put a massive amount of time into the projects only to hit a wall and then withdraw to recover for a week or so.

A Wikipedia addict since the middle of 2004, David says he jumped at the chance to get involved in Wikinews even though his full-time job limits the time he can spend on the site to copy-editing and adding more depth to other people’s stories.

“Some of us are not happy just to be fed the news. We want to get in there and see if we can do it as well,” he says.

David has no journalism experience – “For all I know I’m basing everything I’m doing on the old Watergate movie,” he says – but he and the other Wikinews newbies do have a journalistic mentor in the form of David Speakman, aka Wikinews contributor Davodd. A former journalist for the Red Herring and now a paralegal at a San Jose law firm just 15 minutes drive from Vasquez’ home, Speakman guides Wiki newbies through the processes, ethics, and skills of producing a news operation.

“ I’m watching them discover through trial and error what I already know,” he says. “It’s like giving birth on Main Street – it’s messy,”

Every step of developing Wikinews is a painstaking process of experimentation, negotiation, consultation and consensus building. One of the first major debates was over including opinion pieces, a mainstay of any professional news operation. The collective answer, agreed after much online debate, was no: opinions would compromise the Neutral Point of View.

All this bureaucracy takes place while the citizen journalists also come to grips, story by story, with the laborious and, hopefully, meticulous work that goes into researching, writing, editing, copy editing and fact-checking a news story.

For Speakman, the teaching process is a rewarding but delicate task. “You are talking to really smart people who are honestly ignorant in some areas. I want to help these people not make mistakes,” he says.

The very collaborative nature of Wiki software creates its own problems. Anyone can publish at any time means just that, anyone can publish at any time. It’s not uncommon for stories about contentious entries – be it Islam, Israel or George W. Bush to be vandalized by site visitors who want to spew hate, promote a political agenda or simply cause mischief. Most of the time one of the Wikinews administrators assigned to keep watch on various parts of the site will restore the story to its previous version within a couple of minutes. But over on Wikipedia some pages – especially the ones on George. W. Bush and John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election – have been “locked down” because of constant vandalism. Overall though, vandals tend to get bored once they see how quickly their sabotage is corrected.

Potentially more problematic are the contributors who inject their own political point of view into a story. In February, one explosive newbie called PaulRevere2005 established himself on the site. An energetic conspiracy theorist and unabashed lefty, his story raising questions about Hunter S. Thompson’s “suicide”, complete with veiled suggestions of US Secret Service involvement caused more than one contributor to complain about their NPOV.

Every newsroom in America has its fair share of editorial disagreements – I’ve seen punches traded on more than one occasion at places I’ve worked – but rarely does the backroom brawling take precedence over actually breaking news. Jimmy Wales points out that the process for brokering these disputes moves fairly quickly and that, ultimately, Wikinews can block any real troublemakers from the site [For his part PaulRevere2005 seemed to assimilate into the Wiki system after a few weeks]. The danger though is that as much energy is being spent in discussions about the site as it is in producing a quality news product. And if 50 or 100 bomb throwers wanted to hijack the site and promote their own agenda, the other Wikinewsers would probably be powerless to stop them.

On Thursday, February 24th, Simon Waldman, head of the London Guardian’s digital publishing division posted the following entry on his well-read and well-respected digital news blog:

“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. But, just between you and I: Right now, Wikinews really isn’t very good.”

What followed was a smart and rapier-like critique of everything he saw to be lacking in Wikinews – from a failure to provide even half-decent coverage of hundreds of news stories that the professional news operations handle every day, to the obvious lack of citizen correspondents actually contributing to the site, to its failure to match the automatons of Google News as an effective aggregator of global news stories. The message was clear. Wikinews was not ready for Primetime.

Part of Waldman’s critiques – and those of a number of other online media watchers it should be said – can be put down to the growing pains and experimentation of Wikinews, as Dan Grey was quick to point out in a heated and rapid response to the post. He wrote:

“Wikipedia took four years to get where it is today. Wikinews, in its current form, is six weeks old!”

“It’s a blessing and a curse being the son of Wikipedia,” Dan explains to me a few days later. He’s clearly a little exasperated that all the hard work being done isn’t being appreciated. “We’re running at the moment before we can walk. All the people who are writing stories, they need to give us a chance, give us some time.”

Part of this is certainly true – so far Wikinews doesn’t have anywhere near the number of writers and editors it needs to achieve the necessary “critical mass” where its combined resources outweigh the output of an AP or Reuters.

However, the way Wikinews is approaching its mission raises more problematic questions about whether the Wiki way can ever provide a timely and reliable breaking news operation. Wikipedia – the collaborative model for Wikinews - builds up a repository of knowledge over a period of days and weeks. That’s great for an encyclopedia but hardly the best recipe for running a breaking news operation.

There’s also the question of whether so many cooks end up merely spoiling the broth? In their zeal for a Neutral Point of View, Wikinews seem to revise the life out of their stories, reducing lively news coverage to dull regurgitation of facts. Devotees of Wikipedia may crave totally unbiased information, but is that what the reading public wants? As 150 years of newspapers and five years of blogging has shown, opinionated points of view have a way of grabbing an audience.

Then there’s Wikipedia’s laissez-faire approach to accuracy. At any one time a Wikipedia entry could be wrong – Wiki disciples satisfy themselves in the knowledge that the organic style of wiki contributions will correct mistakes over time (though there’s always the chance they will introduce new ones). Who wants to get their news from an organization that’s content to be just 80 or 90 percent accurate?

So has Wikinews got this whole citizen journalism thing all wrong?

It’s a question that Erik Moeller has heard before and he treats it with a wry, disdainful smile. Though only 25 years old, Moeller is already one of the most influential members of the Wikimedia foundation; indeed it was his idea to start Wikinews in the first place.

“You know daily newspapers do the same thing as Wikinews,” he says batting off the criticism that Wikinews does little more than rewrite wire copy. “They’ll take a story from the Associated Press, rewrite it a little, make it look like its their story, then call a few people, get a quote and that’s it.”

Moeller, who lives in Berlin, goes by the online screen name “Eloquence”; it reflects his personal goal “to communicate eloquently and to present facts in a meaningful manner to people,” he says. When not consumed by Wikinews, Erik is a freelance technology writer and the author of a recent book, The Secret Media Revolution. Suitably, he looks like a European hacker straight out of central casting, complete with long fair hair tied back in a ponytail and slightly crumbled clothing.

Moeller is candid about the quality of Wikinews’ output – it’s not very good at the moment he admits but he is also adamant that Wikinews, with its lack of bias and its open-source approach to news distribution, offers a new and necessary alternative to mainstream media.

Surely though, if Wikinews, and citizen journalism in general, is going to thrive and have any relevance to the greater media landscape, the most exciting thing it can offer is grassroots original reporting. In the UK, the BBC has already experimented with adding citizen news dispatches to its professional coverage while in Montana, a new website serving the Rocky Mountain region called The New West is also promoting citizen journalism as a key component of its news coverage.

Dave Sifry, founder of Technorati and a savvy observer of the rapidly changing information society, believes citizen groups like Wikinews offer an exciting, if nascent, glimpse into the future. “We are seeing a shift from a consumer economy to a participant economy where we are all consumers and producers,” he says, adding, “Just wait till people understand the power of the mobile phone – it’s got a camera, a microphone, an ear piece and a display – then you have a broadcast device in your hand.”

The real potential for Wikinews and collaborative citizen journalism may well depend on citizens getting out there in the trenches and reporting on the issues they know.

By the beginning of March, Ilya Haykinson had completed his latest Wikinews project – a collaboration with Erik Moeller to establish a formal accreditation and verification process for a new generation of Wikinews contributors, the original reporters. Together, the two had designed a Wikinews press pass that reporters could download and print out and Ilya had set up a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone line for organizations to call and verify a Wikinews reporter’s credentials.

Wikinews got its first scoop back in late January when a local correspondent in Belize beat the big boys in reporting civil unrest. Then in March, a Japanese citizen reporter filed first hand reports of the Kyushu earthquake.

“The possibility of creating a structure where original reporting can take place by people who are not really news people by trade is what drives the long term goal of Wikinews,” says Ilya.

Ilya came to the US when he was eight years old after his father, a prominent scientist, was forced to flee the Soviet Union having been persecuted. Not surprisingly, Ilya, who speaks with just the hint of a Russian accent, grew up with a healthy regard for individual liberties. “I take freedom of speech very seriously. In all my experiences I get very upset when that is curtailed,” he says.

Though he’s had no formal journalism training, there’s no doubt that Ilya has the reporting bug.

“Before Ilya began to do Wikinews, he started a newspaper and wrote fake news stories for the online computer game Star Wars Galaxy. For that newspaper, Ilya bought the AP Guide to News writing which we now keep in our bathroom,” says his wife Linda with a grin.

“We were both kinda addicted to Star Wars Galaxies,” explains Ilya a little defensively. “I would travel [in the game] and claim I was with the press so they shouldn’t shoot me. But they still did.”

It’s not being glib to say that Ilya’s Star Wars Galaxy experience translates well to Wikinews. All the interactive and community skills that today’s 20-somethings have learned online provide the underpinning of this new participatory media. And given all the time and effort Ilya spent “practicising” being a journalist – learning style guides and how to structure a news story, who’s to say he’s any less equipped to start plying the trade than many journalism graduates?

Part of Ilya’s motivation for citizen news springs from a lack of trust in reporting he’s experienced first-hand. “I’ve been on the other side of the news process when I worked at Scour [a music peer to peer exchange company that crashed and burned in the Dot-com years] and I saw how reporters sometimes don’t get the information correct. To see a story about yourself and be able to correct it is really quite powerful,” he says.

But there are larger issues at stake. As Ilya sees it, mainstream media is failing to cover large tracts of the world – Africa is one area he is particularly interested in – not to mention important local stories closer to home.

Every person involved in the project agrees that Wikinews should expand its focus to include local news. Dan Grey believes a Wiki Reading could flourish offering news on community events right down to mini-features on amateur dramatic productions. David Vasquez would love to cover the nefarious goings-on of Las Vegas politics. For his part, Ilya would like to start digging around Santa Monica and add his voice to coverage of the local community. “He’s even gone out and bought a microphone,” says Linda.

Not every Wikinewser is ready to fully embrace original reporting however.
“There are a lot of questions that come up about credibility of reporting and what type of people are going to do it,” says Erik Moeller. “Are they people who just want to report something that is propagandist in nature?”

Ten years after the Netscape Navigator browser brought the World Wide Web to life for the average PC user, the age of interactivity may finally have arrived. We the people have come to terms with reading our news online but more important we’ve also grown comfortable with writing reviews of the books we buy, of buying and selling goods and of downloading the type of music, video and media we want to experience all on the Internet.

Today’s society has finally caught up with the technology enabling us realize the full interactive potential of the Internet.

“People want to be part of the global conversation,” says Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, the recent finger-on-the-pulse study of citizen journalism. “If we combine the best principles and practices of professional journalism with the fervor, talent and knowledge of the grassroots, then something wonderful is going to emerge,” he says.”

Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales puts it more plainly. “We are seeing the birth of a citizen journalism movement,” he says.

Wikinews is still only six months old. When it launched, Jimmy Wales said he would evaluate the project after six months and close it down if it wasn’t working. Is that likely to happen? Probably not. But to be honest, whether Wikinews is a long time success doesn’t really matter. It will already have done its part. Other citizen journalism sites will grow and will hit on the right combination of amateur and professional participation. The more forward-thinking members of mainstream media, meanwhile, will understand that citizen journalism represents an opportunity instead of a threat and they will draw upon the strengths of these “amateurs” to improve their news gathering operations. Citizen journalism is here to stay.

Anatomy of the Story

I'd like to explain exactly how this story was put together and how it differs from the citizen journalism that I write about.

The most important point to acknowledge is that this story benefitted from being afforded the reporting and research resources that comes from writing for a major publication.

I spent the best part of a month researching, reporting and writing the Wikinews story and I travelled to San Francisco and Los Angeles in the US, Reading in the UK and Berlin, Germany to interview Wikinews contributors. In all, I conducted over 15 hours of interviews and spent many more hours following Wikinews online.

I also read the following books in order to prepare for the story:

We The Media - By Dan Gillmor
Smart Mobs - By Howard Rheingold
The Victorian Internet - Tom Standage
My Trade - Andrew Marr

I worked with an editor in framing the story before writing it and I received a structural edit after I turned in the first draft. I then did a re-write based on the editor's instructions.

Once the story was killed, I continued to edit and fine tune the story myself. Also, I made a good faith effort to ensure that all the information in this story is correct.

Put simply, this meaty type of feature is currently out of the range of most citizen journalists simply because they lack the means to do the amount of research and reporting I do routinely as part of my job.

Ironically, I now find myself in a similar situation to citizen journalists - plenty to say on a subject but no obvious mainstream outlet for it.

I'm not alone. Kill fees are part and parcel of the journalism business and there are many good stories failing to make it into print each month. David Wallis recently edited a book titled Killed: Journalism Too Hot to Print while a friend of mine once had the genius idea of launching a magazine titled Kill Fee.

I note this without any bitterness at having my story killed (well, not much anyway). Having worked as an assigning editor and having killed plenty of stories in the past, I understand the whims of the process. Live by the pen, die by the pen I guess you could say.

Finally, in posting this story online in this format, I hope to generate a conversation around Wikinews and also offer a sense for non-professional journalists of the amount of time and effort that goes into producing a piece of work like this.

I've provided links to key characters throughout the story and I am happy to discuss passages and themes of the story in the comments section.

In time, this blog may yet produce its own organic template for understanding more about journalism - citizen and professional.