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June 17, 2009, 2:03 p.m.

Knight News Challenge: Six rules for local wikis, from the newest open-government project in New York

[Our series profiling winners of the 2009 Knight News Challenge continues with Michael Andersen writing about Gotham Gazette’s grant for a local wiki called Councilpedia. —Josh]

Every newsroom’s got them: A few dozen gadflies who’ve been in town forever and are proud to have their favorite reporters on speed-dial.

The little team at New York City’s Web-only Gotham Gazette — two reporters, two geeks, and a boss — wants to recruit more people like that. In fact, they want to train them. And they think the way to do it is with a closely edited wiki.

The Gazette’s plan for Councilpedia, a planned guide to the filthy lucre that links real estate and politics on New York’s city council, just made the Gazette the first two-time winner of a Knight News Challenge grant, this one worth $250,000 over two years. (Editor-in-chief Gail Robinson’s team won the same amount in 2007 for a series of educational Web games, such as one that asked readers to balance the city budget.)

The idea is to combine the anyone-can-contribute model of Wikipedia with the editing and fact-checking that marks good journalism. The hope is that by directly enlisting the eyes and ears of the public, Councilpedia will uncover watchdog stories that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

I talked with Robinson, a veteran journalist, and her top geek, Amanda Hickman, about their strategy for launching a topical local wiki. Here are the six most interesting choices they’ve made:

Keep it simple, stupid. While Wikipedia‘s increasingly strict citation system has made the world’s biggest wiki less accessible for inexperienced editors, the Gazette says they’ll be fighting that tendency with their interface, which will be built on the same MediaWiki software Wikipedia uses.

“We’re counting on a body of users that doesn’t necessarily have any technical expertise,” said Hickman. “I think the project will succeed or fail based in large part on the usability of our edit screens. If it’s too hard to put information in, or it feels like they’re always doing it wrong, then they’ll stop.”

Choose one problem to solve together. One reason for Wikipedia’s success: every volunteer editor knows intuitively what an encyclopedia is supposed to do. By setting narrow goals for Councilpedia’s content, the Gazette hopes to signal to their own volunteers how to direct their energy.

“We don’t even particularly want to know if the council member kicks his dog,” Robinson said. “People are less likely to respond [to], ‘Tell us what you think about things that are going on in New York City!’ If you say to people, ‘Who’s giving money to your council member?’ people will show up.”

Think of a wiki as community organizing. Robinson said the first six months of Councilpedia will be an “intensive outreach” effort, with paid interns fanning out to civic groups across the boroughs to promote and explain the site.

Hickman, who worked for three years as a community organizer before becoming the Gazette’s technical director, expects to spend about half her time in 2010 administering the site.

Focus on landing one blockbuster success. The Gazette folks are eager to start their wiki grinding at a few particular rumors that, if confirmed, would spread like fire through local media.

“If we can really tease out one story that really grabs people’s attention, then I think we’ll get a flurry of activity,” Hickman said.

Make it useful immediately. To win loyalty, Councilpedia would need to become something people feel they “weren’t able to do their work without,” Hickman said.

She and Robinson aren’t sure yet how much information they’ll need to seed the site with to start attracting contributions, but they’re certain no one would contribute to an empty site.

Keep it accurate. Unconfirmed data and constant refinement may be good enough for Wikipedia, but it’s not good enough for the Gotham Gazette, Robinson said.

She has no idea how much staff time it’ll take to confirm every claim that is made on the wiki. But their goal is to hold everything to the standard of anything else on their web site. Anything less, Robinson said, would be unethical.

But if the Gazette’s staff swoop in to police every statement made on Councilpedia, will volunteers lose the sense of ownership that motivates their participation?

And just how accurate will the information people post turn out to be?

That’s exactly what the Knight Foundation is paying them to track, Robinson said.

“It’s always very surprising what people buy into and what they don’t,” she said. “It’s anybody’s guess at this point.”

POSTED     June 17, 2009, 2:03 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2009
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