Wikipedia’s co-founder wanted to let readers edit the news. What went wrong?

Jimmy Wales in 2008, uploaded to Flickr by Joi Ito

It’s been almost a year since the launch of WikiTribune, the crowdsourced news site created by Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. If you haven’t heard of WikiTribune, you’re not alone—it hasn’t made a big splash outside hardcore digital-media circles. But it’s an ambitious project, one that was designed to democratize the news as a Wikipedia-style portal where anyone could contribute to and edit news stories.

In a world where many media companies still behave as though their job is to deliver content to a waiting audience, and feedback or input from readers is generally kept to a minimum, Wales was trying to create something radically different. For example, victims of the recent California fires might go on and edit information about the fires themselves. So might members of the Fire Department. And professional journalists would help them do it.

But earlier this month, WikiTribune hit a roadblock. In October, it laid off its entire team of about a dozen professional journalists, part of what the site described as a pivot back towards a community-driven approach. This sparked some concern among WikiTribune fans: had Wales given up on his vision of a crowdsourced news site run in partnership with journalists?

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Wales tells CJR he hasn’t given up, and that the layoffs were part of a strategy to make the site more user driven. But he admits WikiTribune has also used up most of the money it raised from a  crowdfunding campaign and a group of investors, including a $100,000 matching grant from the CUNY-based News Integrity Initiative and $500,000 from Google’s Digital News Initiative. (For the time being, Wales is funding the project himself.) And he acknowledges some early mistakes, including some of the same kinds of errors made in Wikipedia’s early days.

In Wales’ view, the original design of the site worked against it. Its structure, including restrictions on who could publish news, seemed to give would-be contributors the impression they were second-class citizens of the service—that their job was to submit content that would then be fixed up by professional journalists. That wasn’t the intention at all, he says. “That’s not the wiki way.”

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Wales says he faced similar issues in structuring Nupedia, the predecessor to Wikipedia, and pitching it to potential users. “Nupedia was top down and very controlled,” he says. “It was a seven-stage process just to get anything published, and so it was very polished, but the process was far too intimidating. I basically made all these same mistakes with WikiTribune—I should have known better.”

The changes to the site are designed to make it even more obvious that users are encouraged to contribute, Wales says. In a sense, the Wikipedia founder’s vision of the future takes for granted that the revolution brought by the internet—the reality that anyone anywhere can report on events and contribute, something that used to be called “citizen journalism” in the early days of the web—is not something to be opposed or restricted, but embraced.

In a blog post published just after the layoffs and co-authored by Orit Kopel, co-founder of WikiTribune and CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation, Wales told members he is “still finding vestiges of the clearly wrong perception that the journalists are ‘above’ the community, supervising their work. What we are doing is inverting completely how people normally think about communities and journalists—the community is not here to merely help the journalists. Rather the journalists will be here to work for the community.”

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The implication, in some of these public comments, is that the professional journalists who were laid off by WikiTribune were somehow not on board with the community-oriented focus of the site (though Wales says he doesn’t believe that). In an answer to a user’s question on the site, the WikiTribune founder mentioned what he calls the “hubris” of professional journalists, who do “an absolutely miserable job” of maintaining a neutral point of view.

Like its sister site Wikipedia, the WikiTribune encourages a policy of adopting a “neutral point of view,” or describing events rather than making value judgments. This isn’t quite like a journalistic notion of objectivity, but it’s close. “There are many excellent journalists who do live up to ideals of neutrality–or at least try to,” Wales wrote, “while being employed by publications which are increasingly not interested in paying for that kind of journalism.”

Several of the staff who were let go say they were committed to those goals and were working hard to be helpful to users, right up until they were laid off, which for many came as a surprise. None would go on the record with CJR, but two said they were frustrated by some of the comments following their departure, saying they had tried hard to work with the community and didn’t see the structure as a failure up. Another former employee said that, without the journalists, WikiTribune is “effectively dead.”

While Wales says it’s fair to say that WikiTribune “hasn’t been wildly successful,” he remains a strong believer in the idea that journalists and community members alike can play an important role in the overall process of crowdsourcing news. “I can’t guarantee this is going to be a raging success, but I have passionately pursued all the things we’ve promised to pursue and I will continue to do so,” he says.

Is it possible that news just isn’t a great fit for the wiki model where anyone can contribute? “That’s a legitimate question—is it suitable?” Wales says. “Clearly there are certain types of news that are very difficult to do in a community setting, if you have to go somewhere to report and so on, but there are other things that are quite straightforward. People can do desk research, but they can’t drop everything and pursue the story for four days or be on the scene the way a reporter can. So we’re still exploring what are the things that work.”

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So are more people using the site and contributing to the news since the most recent design changes? Wales says yes, although he wouldn’t provide specific numbers. “The main metrics are participation, that’s fundamental,” he says. “And the number of people editing things is up this month and up considerably from our redesign.”

Wales says he is still going through the site looking for language that might be intimidating. For example, he says he has made multiple changes to the introductory post on “How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune.” (The changes can be seen on the piece’s history page, which keeps track of every edit). Among other things, Wales removed references to things like “getting your copy out faster,” which is something traditional journalists think about, but not relevant to a wiki approach to the news, he says.

Over the past couple of weeks, hundreds of people with WikiTribune accounts got emails telling them their accounts had been upgraded and that they could publish without having to have their contributions approved by an editor. In a note to those users, Wales wrote: “This is part of a strategic shift to put community forward more than ever before. This is an experiment. Please be careful with it. By default, I trust you. By default, the community trusts you. But you can lose that trust if you don’t do the right things.” WikiTribune has also opened up a chat forum using the discussion app Discord.

For what it’s worth, one of the journalists who was laid off says he agrees with the latest changes. In a blog post on Medium, Charles Turner wrote: “Features from staff reporters, including a few impressive exclusives, were often the most viewed and well-received articles on the platform. But they also routinely received the least amount of collaboration. Community members might occasionally edit for grammar, or offer feedback, but ultimately shied away from jumping into the copy in any substantive way.”

Critics might use the layoffs of professional journalistic staff as an excuse to say the collaborative model behind WikiTribune is broken or can never work, Turner wrote, “but they shouldn’t. While I’m sad to leave WikiTribune, I still believe the audience can collaborate in the journalistic process.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.