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The WikiTribune Way: What it’s like to run a news site with a “neutral point of view”

“It is a product for people of good will — which I know sounds ridiculously naive, but so far it’s working quite well.”
March 14, 2018, 8:33 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Is anyone watching the money in our government coffers?”

“I am still hoping we can get some in-depth analysis of Brazil’s Lula conviction and electoral campaign.”

“I’d like to see a story about the bill passed in Iowa that forces stores to offer eggs that are caged rather than cage free.”

Each morning at 10 a.m. GMT, WikiTribune posts its agenda for the day and invites readers to weigh in with comments and more ideas. Sometimes editors or other readers follow up on the ideas or invite the contributors to start projects around them. Some ideas (government coffers) sit there without further comment. The conversation is all preserved to see later.

It’s just one way in which WikiTribune hopes to get audiences involved in its reporting — without totally relying on the audiences to do all the work in the first place. The site was founded by Wikipedia cofounder CEO Jimmy Wales last April, kicking off with a drive to crowdfund the salaries of 10 journalists. Wales envisioned a site that was a hybrid between citizen and professional journalism: “You need to have some professional journalists on staff who can do the things that it’s too hard to do from home, and yet you shouldn’t discount the value that a great community can bring in terms of fact-checking, overseeing things, working on neutrality, and even doing some original reporting, when they’re well-suited to do it,” he told me last year.

WikiTribune, which is intended to be a for-profit site, launched in October. The following conversation will make more sense if you know how the site works: It’s build on WordPress, which digital VP Natalia Avdeeva is customizing to allow for mass edits. She had to figure out how to manage conflicting changes to a story; now stories on WikiTribune can be edited by multiple users simultaneously, the way they can be on Wikipedia. Revisions from journalists and the community get queued for editor approval, and another “History” feature exposes an audit trail of all activites on a story. “Everything is visible to everyone,” Avdeeva said. For each story posted on WikiTribune, you can just read it, you can edit it or comment on it (if you’re a registered user), and you can view its edit history. Take the example of a recent story on how the narrative on guns is changing in the U.S. Wales edited it, then explained his thought process:

WikiTribune’s editor is Peter Bale, a longtime journalist who had most recently been director of the Center for Public Integrity. I recently spoke with Bale about how things are going so far, whether the comment — sorry, “Talk” — section ever gets nasty, why bitcoin’s so popular, and why there is ongoing debate over “objectivity” vs. “neutrality.” Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: It’s been almost a year since WikiTribune was announced, and you guys launched in October. How are things going a few months in?

Peter Bale: We have 12 or 13 journalists now. I’ve got a team that is mixed between full-time staff — six London-based young journalists, most of whom Jimmy [Wales] hired before I got here. The first three months of the task, before I got here in August, was to give them a program, a sort of plan to work toward.

We’ve created a very systematic approach to journalism, which suits a young team, where you need — not exactly an imposed style, but a bit of a style guide or stylistic approach can allow young, very inexperienced journalists to have a framework in which to write. It’s not dissimilar, though I wouldn’t give it the same level of strength, to the way Bloomberg approached it in the early years with The Bloomberg Way, in order to have a framework where they could take a very diverse group of people and turn them into quite good journalists very quickly.

Most of the young people in London are fresh out of journalism school or had been bloggers. The more senior people, who I call consulting editors, are essentially freelancers I have on contract; I’ve been able to bring in some very experienced people to offer almost one-to-one editing tuition to that staff team, but also to manage the flow of input from the community. It’s almost always a staff editor who publishes material from the community to its fully published state on the site. That’s for quality reasons and it’s to try to reinforce the Jimmy Wales ambition of having a neutral point of view. But it’s also very important, because we’re based in the U.K., to meet U.K. libel and defamation rules, because there’s no First Amendment protecting us here.

Owen: What is the community’s role in WikiTribune right now? For instance: You publish a News Agenda on the site each day and invite the audience to contribute. But it’s you who decides each day what will be on the agenda, right?

Bale: Everything that staff or the community produce can be commented on by the community. There’s an implicit or explicit invitation in everything that we do for the community to contribute to it. The community can edit and add information to any story at all. They can fix our Oxford commas or correct our spellings or accuse us of bias, or they can go in and talk about the story — what most people would call a comment but where we use the Wikipedia term “talk,” because we’re trying to encourage more of a dialogue and a discussion about the story rather than the binary sort of abuse you get in most comments sections.

We’re also been doing Facebook Live meetings of our news conference in the mornings and afternoons, and we’re putting them out to our users on Slack.

We also have very specific call-outs; we published one recently about Harvey Weinstein and the failure of the Weinstein company. That’s a request to participate on a specific story. In an ideal world, you could almost imagine handing that story, effectively, to the public.

So far, there are more people observing than there are participating. But I’m very hopeful that if we get the formula right, it will be both transparent and responsive to ideas that people in the community may have about story directions.

Owen: What kinds of topics do the best?

Bale: Part of my background is 18 years at Reuters, so in a sense we’re running a mini news agency approach for the staff content. We’re also, obviously, looking at the metrics — what gets the most traffic. So, for example, 63 percent of our stories from the past month generated conversations. If we go in and analyze those, they tell us a little bit more — not always perfectly, but they give us signals as to what people want, what people are most engaged in.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency is our most-read category of content. That is probably because we have — initially at least — a very large percentage of male readers, who are in California and are Wikipedia fans or fans of Jimmy’s. But lately 20 to 30 percent of our readers are women, which is great.

Owen: What percentage of readers are participating?

Bale: 8,107 people are registered on the site, which makes them able to contribute and create content. Of those, a relatively small proportion are active on any one day, but I would love to have 10 percent of contributors active on a given day. I think that’s a good target in this fourth or fifth month of launch.

Owen: Who’s allowed to just make a change to the site — or are all of the changes, even the ones made by Jimmy Wales, approved by somebody else before they go in, or how does that work?

Bale: Jimmy and the staff members can publish to the site without it going through an editor. There are a couple of trusted members of the community who have permission to publish [without it being checked by an editor first], but very few.

Owen: Have you seen any of the typical comment-section problems?

Bale: Jimmy is a very big believer in the goodness of the crowd. It’s a beautiful way to look at the world and I’m a little bit more cynical in this, but he looks at the world as being collections of people of good intent. So far there’s been — touching wood — almost no abuse on the site.

People have accused us of being snowflakes, they’ve accused us of being too liberal, they’ve accused us of being part of the mainstream media conspiracy, and all that. But generally there’s been incredibly little abuse either of the staff or of other people on the site. The “talk” areas have been remarkably good-humored and remarkably constructive so far. When I was a head of international content on digital at CNN, the commentaries on stories were a hideous battleground. So there is something to be said for the kind of relationship that is implicit in a product that has Jimmy Wales behind it. It is a product for people of good will — which I know sounds ridiculously naive, but so far it’s working quite well.

Owen: There is no opinion content on WikiTribune. What went into that decision?

Bale: We don’t do commentary or opinion, and we’re constantly pursuing Jimmy’s ambition of neutral point of view. If there is an area where he and I have a difference, it’s the pursuit of objectivity versus the pursuit of neutrality — that’s a constant creative gap between us.

But we do not do comment or opinion. We eradicate from our own work what could be perceived as commentary or opinion. That means really thinking of the language that we use, and not being glib, not using loaded words that can get dropped into stories almost by accident. It’s an incredibly good discipline.

I did create a section of stories called Essays. We have a retired French diplomat who’s been using them to write substantial tours of the horizon, if you like, about specific subjects of world development and diplomacy. They’re not quite commentary because they are written from a point of view of expertise, but we’ve extracted most of the commentary, or what could be perceived as opinion, from them. It’s a way of getting somebody with specific knowledge to write in a way that allows that knowledge to come to the fore, but it probably would not be a Wikipedia entry, if you see what I mean.

One of the biggest differences between us and Wikipedia is that individual experience and individual reporting are completely out of the question at Wikipedia, whereas they’re actually what we’re looking for at WikiTribune. In a sense, Wikipedia is is all about correct annotation and attribution of a secondary source, whereas here what we’re after in many cases is witnessing and a kind of specific knowledge.

Owen: Wait, so the pursuit of objectivity versus the pursuit of neutrality is something you and Jimmy disagree on. Which side do you fall on?

Bale: Well, I’m a journalist and he is not, but he is the founder and he is the sort of high priest of neutral point of view, having created the fifth-largest site in the world based on that. So we’re at an interesting place where the pursuit of objectivity and the pursuit of clarity are part of the journey toward a neutral point of view.

But journalism by itself is an observed art. There are facts in it, but there is always a certain amount of interpretation in it as well — in the way you present the facts, the words you use, particularly in first-person journalism. The pursuit of objectivity, or the pursuit of neutrality, has to go beyond just having a balancing quote from somebody else. It’s genuinely trying to think of what a neutral perspective would be. Where I think it becomes difficult: I don’t think you can do stories like “Slavery: Good or bad? You decide.” I think that sort of binary version of neutrality is not really appropriate for journalism.

Owen: Is this debate limiting or frustrating for you?

Bale: It’s challenging. It’s very challenging. But I think the merging of commentary and opinion with classic news reporting has become a really critical problem in contemporary journalism. I think television has driven that in part, and I also believe strongly that there is a design element to it: When we’re all consuming elements of news on the phone, distinguishing between what is commentary, opinion, and reporting is extremely difficult visually.

So, for us, it’s a matter of writing a sentence and saying, “Can I stand it up? Is it justified by the link I’m attaching? Is it justified by the background I’ve attached? Have I explained how I got to that conclusion?” A lot of what we’re doing is exposing the journey that the journalist or community member is taking to get to the perspective that they’re trying to communicate. What is the information that they’ve consumed to lead them to that conclusion? A huge amount of it, journalistically, is showing our own work, which is why we try — not always perfectly or successfully — to publish our transcripts and interviews and that kind of thing.

Owen: WikiTribune is not a nonprofit site. Right?

Bale: It is theoretically not, that’s right. We’re not part of Wikimedia. Jimmy and his cofounder did a crowdfunding launch of it last April and that is still predominantly funding that we’re working through. Their ambition is that it be a for-profit business. I think 12,000 people contributed to Jimmy’s crowdfunding campaign and they contributed to it sight unseen, which was pretty amazing.

Owen: What paths might you take to being a for-profit? Do you see most revenue continuing to come from reader donations?

Bale: There’s not a paywall as such, but people are invited to donate. We have an audience strategy to bring in more people just as the audience. We hope that some of those become contributors to the site, and then some of those become financial supporters.

The priority for me, being the editor rather than the CEO or the founder, has been to get the content into a shape where I’m confident that it is interesting, credible, draws people in, and causes people to discuss and talk about it and want to add to it. It’s also a very interesting phenomenon to ask people to contribute to news rather than to a collection of facts. It’s a big ask to ask somebody to go in and write, from scratch, a news story.

Owen: What’s surprised you in these first few months?

Bale: The courteousness so far has been amazing and really impressive.

Our stories also tend to last. We’ve been very careful to try and preserve the conversations that are associated with the story as much as we’re preserving the story itself, so stories don’t just last 6 or 12 or 24 hours; they are being added to over a period of weeks and months.

I’m very proud of the piece we did on #metoo. We didn’t just do it on Weinstein, we did it once he had become symbolically something much larger. That story has been running and been updated 20 or 30 times in the last month. Nothing is static; an article is never quite finished. Some consumers can be unnerved by that, because the story will change in nature the second or third time they look at it. But our site lets you look at the history of the story and see every change that’s been made to it since it was first conceived. So there’s a huge level of quite scary transparency behind that.

Owen: What are you thinking about as your biggest priorities over the next couple of months?

Bale: I would like a bigger audience. One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was from Larry Kramer, who was my boss at FT MarketWatch, and who’s now the chairman of The Street: We were really worried, when I did a site with him that seemed to have very low levels of traffic. He said, wait three months. There’s a moment when things start to take off, when some sort of coalescence of volume happens and then it goes up exponentially. So, for example, I did an interview last week with Süddeutsche Zeitung, and our German traffic bumped up very high at the weekend. We need a bigger audience if we’re going to make this sustainable.

And then, I would say, Jimmy’s focus is still on the conversion of people into contributors. The ambition would be, maybe in a couple of years, to have 50 percent of the content contributed by staff and 50 percent of the content contributed by users, and then over time for it to have a much higher percentage coming from the users.

Owen: What is your traffic like right now?

Bale: All I want to say is that our number of registered contributors has gone from 1,700 when we started on October 31 to, as of now, just over 8,000 registered users on the site. We do count pageviews because it’s a way of counting readership and popularity, but because we’re not running an ad impression model, the journalists are incentivized more, or promoted more, on time on their stories, number of talk comments or discussion on their story, and the number of edits.

Owen: Does that factor into the journalists’ pay in some way?

Bale: Not yet.

Owen: But it could?

Bale: Yes. However you incentivize people, yup. Praise or money.

Owen: Anything else you want to add?

Bale: I’ve been very influenced by Atul Gawande, the New Yorker writer and surgeon, who wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto. Essentially, we’re using that principle of checklists to help systematically train journalists very effectively against a set of rules, which means that you can start to put out a consistent and a coherent product relatively quickly.

That’s been a really interesting experience, which I will one day write something about. It’s constantly in flux. We have a set of kind of core documents, and what I try to do is constantly review them and update them against what we’re actually achieving.

So, for example, we have a checklist to do our daily briefing. The journalists theoretically go through a checklist each day and ask: Is the story that I’m contemplating a WikiTribune story? If it’s a WikiTribune story, what criteria does it meet: Does it have multiple points of view? Is it complex? Is it going to last more than a day? Those are the kinds of things that they look at. The principle of it is that it should allow even the most inexperienced person, including the audience, in fact, to create a more or less credible piece of content.

POSTED     March 14, 2018, 8:33 a.m.
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