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Feb. 8, 2010, 10 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2010, 10 a.m.
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