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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why Wikipedia beats Wikinews as a collaborative journalism project

When big news breaks, you can be sure that Wikipedia will cover the hell out of it. Not so much on Wikinews, the collaborative-journalism project that has faltered since launching in December 2004.

For some insight on why Wikipedia has been a more successful news source than Wikinews, I talked to Andrew Lih, who teaches at USC’s journalism school and wrote The Wikipedia Revolution. As you’ll see in the video above, Lih said that Wikipedia’s formulaic style and continuous format are more conducive to collaborative writing projects than the discrete articles found on Wikinews.

A transcript of the video follows.

Andrew Lih: So Wikinews was started as sort of an offshoot of the Wikipedia community to create a space where real timely news stories would be written and filed there. But it hasn’t grown as quickly, and certainly it has very much a lower profile than Wikipedia. One of the main reasons why is because the task of writing a news story with a lead, a coherent narrative, and a deadline is very different than writing an encyclopedia article.

So there’s always been this tension between the Wikipedia community, which is much larger and much more dedicated to timely updating of articles, and the Wikinews folks, who are trying to build a legitimate competitor to indie media, to even a traditional news organization like AP or UPI as a newswire. So there’s always been this tension, and the Wikinews people have always been telling the Wikipedia people: Oh, why do you spend so much time updating those articles about the tsunami or about the train bombings? Instead of writing those little tidbits into the articles, why don’t you come over and write full articles in Wikinews? So there’s always been this problem of Wikinews people not thinking they get as much respect or as many resources as Wikipedia, not only from the community but from the foundation as well.

Zach Seward: What is it? I mean, so part of what you’re saying, no deadline? So less…what is it that makes people makes people prefer to contribute to Wikipedia? Even when, you know, if you think about it, that the way that a Wikipedia article develops on a current event is very fast, is rewriting the lead. I mean, there are tons of similarities to how it would look on the wire and how it might look on [Wikipedia]. But something brings people there instead of to Wikinews.

Andrew: I think there’s a number of reasons. One is the Wikipedia style is much more established and much more formulaic than a news story. So Wikipedia always does a very strict inverted pyramid, right? The London train bombings were an event that happened on this day, this time, which affected this many people. And then you kind of go down to more specifics. It’s very much a clinical just-the-facts, and as you go down, you have the information box on the right hand side for most of these articles. It’s a very formulaic thing, which reads very much like a reference.

This is very different than writing an article where you need to come up with a dramatic lead. It has a deadline, which is very different than most wiki writing. So you have to file the story at a certain time, and that’s the snapshot of what has happened at that point. Then, if you want to update, you need to write a new article with the additional information, but still recapping the previous information. I think for most Wikipedians that just seems like a very tedious process that you’ve already captured in a Wikipedia page.

Another thing is that it’s not clear that the wiki process really gears itself towards deadlines and group narrative writing. These are two things that are very hard to do in a wiki context. So it’s kind of against the nature of the wiki community and the wiki culture that has been produced already. And I think that is providing some kind of a tension in terms of getting Wikipedians to write for an organization such as Wikinews.

Zach: That’s interesting. The formulaic style is an asset when you’re asking a crowd to cooperate.

Andrew: Right.

Zach: Because there are certain precepts that everyone knows about it and it’s easier to follow than —

Andrew: That’s right.

Zach: — trying to craft a creative lead which, you know.

Andrew: Exactly. So anything beyond very formulaic, in terms of a news story, very formulaic writing about a sports event or about a specific meeting, or a specific event — if you’re trying to write something approaching a feature piece, it’s much harder to get more than two or three people to stay consistent with the style.

So I learned this first hand when I wrote my book. I asked people to contribute to the last chapter of the book in a wiki method. We had over 20 or 30 contributors to that last chapter, but it took a lot of massaging to get that style correct. It took me almost two days of straight editing on my own just to get that last chapter in shape. And that’s from a very limited experiment. And if you look at bigger experiments like A Million Penguins by Penguin Publishing, where they tried to do a whole book in the wiki method, that was a real bad failure as well, because it just could not get enough people to take this narrative arc from beginning to end in a style that made sense for a book.

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  • David Morton

    Part of the disparity might also be that the Wikipedia community gravitates toward creating something of lasting value. From an outsider’s perspective, Wikinews feels fleeting in the same way that any other newspaper article or blog post is old news by the time it’s first read.

    Even though Wikipedia articles are frequently updated and changed, at a rapid pace even, you still get the sense that a contribution is more than a one-off event. It’s a contribution to something much bigger.

    Just from perusing the discussion pages on a given Wikipedia article, you can tell that contributors take the notion of permanence very seriously.

  • Jonathan Stray

    Fascinating. Perhaps news organizations have something essential to learn here. The notion of putting out news in discrete and unchanging chunks is very “paper” thinking. If you assume that most people don’t follow every story closely, then what most people need is a complete history, not just the diffs.

    Now here’s a question: would it be useful to highlight the sentences that have changed since the reader last visited that topic? Rather than asking readers to construct the whole story from the updates, we would be asking them to construct the updates from the whole story.

  • Nihiltres

    I thought this post was very interesting, and it inspired me to write a post on my blog (linked here as my website) about a difference that I think is being missed here. I think that there’s an important difference to be considered on the Web between *aggregative* and *collaborative* content production, and I think that that is one of the key differences between Wikipedia and Wikinews here. As Lih’s comments highlight, the formulaic and condensed style of Wikipedia leads to a more aggregative model. I’d like to suggest that while aggregative models tend to lead to greater surface participation, a deeper collaborative model is nevertheless desirable for quality. Using both aggregative and collaborative approaches (for the strangths of each) is probably the best way to attack the problem.

  • Brian McNeil

    In some respects, Wikinews was created to address a perennial problem of people overloading Wikipedia articles with latest news snippets. Without a critical mass of contributors Wikinews does indeed struggle; mass-collaboration on a news report is well-nigh impossible, realistically you need to push out a fully-completed article on your own. The articles on Wikinews with substantial numbers of contributors are driven towards an encyclopedic style.

    However, what may be a sub-footnote in a someone’s life could be a major news story for several weeks – just where are you going to find the gory details on that in 50+ years? Certainly not in the latest version of the Wikipedia article.

    Andrew points out that myself, and other Wikinews contributors are indeed ambitious; far better to aim high and not quite get there, than to make a halfhearted effort and be dismissed for not trying.

    There is a dramatic difference that both interviewer and interviewee overlook – Wikinews allows original research.

    Somewhere in there is an interview with Shimon Perez, another with the head of the US Nazi Party, sundry 3rd-party political candidates around the world, and a handful of honest-to-goodness investigative pieces that are simply not covered better anywhere else.

  • David Gerard

    English Wikipedia gets all the attention. But it’s incorrect to say or imply that Wikinews is somehow a failure because it isn’t yet a top-10 site on its own. It has its strengths and it’s still learning how to do this. It took English Wikipedia five or so years to learn how to do it, it will take other projects a similar sort of time.

  • Steven Walling

    Wikinews may be lagging behind in volume of coverage, but it’s slowly becoming important to Wikimedia in another way.

    Since it’s so much smaller and easier to get consensus for changes, Wikinews is currently using the new beta skin for MediaWiki, which is only a user preference in Wikipedia (meaning you have to log in to see it). They also just enabled Liquid Threads, a pretty radical improvement to the standard discussion pages in Wikimedia projects.

  • John Ivey

    My first thought was along the same lines as the first commenter. I contribute to Wikipedia partly because it’s nice to know that its there forever, i can watch edits, a lasting contribution to human knowledge.

    I was also surprised that he didnt put more emphasis on the fact that when a news even happens, all that is required to update the Wikipedia is to add “X died/announced/was arrested/was elected/etc on Feb 8, 2010″ into the preexisting article and boom! Wikipedia is ahead of Wikinews. And anyone looking for information would be better of with Wikipedia’s pre-existing background coverage+the new news story. That’s the 2nd big advantage. The article is already there; adding is easier than creating.

  • Brian McNeil

    John Ivey,

    Are you under some sort of illusion that Wikinews deletes old articles?

    It doesn’t.

    Nor does it change them, delete once-considered-important facts, or any of the other *problems* with constant revision.

    Have you tried to access the New York Times’ archives recently? Or, those of any other long-running commercial news site? Did your credit card enjoy the experience?

  • Donald Lancon

    Wikinews does not delete articles, but they protect them very quickly after they’re created, so thereafter only admins can edit them.

    As a user who would mainly edit established Wikinews articles to correct grammar mistakes and other awkward wording, link to Wikipedia articles for more context, add categories, and so forth, I find that I cannot edit the vast majority of articles at Wikinews because they’re protected.

    When I asked about this, established users there said all I had to do was write a few original news articles and I could become an admin and gain the ability to edit protected articles. Problem is, I don’t *want* to create and “publish” new articles; I just want to edit pre-existing ones. But I can’t.

    If I could edit Wikinews the way I wanted to, I might get more involved in the project (and might even write some news stories eventually!), but the barrier to participation (the way I want to do it, anyway) is so high, I just gave up on it.

  • John Ivey

    I knew that Wikinews keeps all old articles around, perhaps I phrased that poorly. Wikinews articles lose relevance quickly. While even the most obscure wikipedia articles get a few hits a day (assuming they’re not orphaned) and the occasional edit, wikinews articles go into the archive. They lack the dynamism of wikipedia and its therefore hard for me to get excited about contributing.
    What you cite as the problems of constant revision are what excite me about joining in. Wikinews is a valuable project and I use it, but if the discussion is about barriers to growth I think that’s one for many people attracted to the wiki format.

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  • Ana

    It would work better if it maintained time and location relevance of the articles.