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Oct. 24, 2018, 2:41 p.m.

WikiTribune is handing the keys more completely to its users (after laying off its journalists)

“Effectively, 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.”

We’ve written a few times about WikiTribune, the Jimmy Wales-founded for-profit news site that aims to merge the bottom-up authority structure of Wikipedia with the top-down authority structure of traditional journalism.

Well, now it’s doubling down on the bottom-up part: laying off its staff of 13 paid journalists and handing the keys more completely to the site’s (not particularly numerous) users. The Drum had the news first.

Last month, the WikiTribune about page listed 22 people. Today it lists two. (They say they plan to hire a new staff of journalists, “with extensive wiki experience [and] fact checking passion.” The site had launched with a crowdfunding campaign centered on how they money contributed would be used to hire reporters.)

On Friday, Wales, the Wikipedia co-founder, sent an email to many people with accounts on the site (including me) announcing at least part of the changes:

The email describes me as “an active member of the community,” something of an overstatement given that I’ve never edited a thing on the site.

Wales and cofounder Orit Kopel announced the changes Sunday in a post on the site detailing “what we have learned so far”:

Essentially what we have seen is that the quality from the community is extremely high — the quality of the dialogue between us all is high, and the quality of the output is high…

One of the most challenging things has been to get the software and culture right to encourage participation. As longtime community members will remember, we launched with a very beautiful site that had all the signifiers to suggest that you could read but not participate. Orit Kopel led the redesign process to get to where we are now — with lots and lots of edit links everywhere — which has resulted in a great improvement in participation.

We are still working through the site and finding vestiges of the clearly wrong perception that the journalists are ‘above’ the community, supervising their work. This was never the intention and it is something we got wrong in the early design. Despite the best efforts of staff, the overall structure and design didn’t let the community genuinely flourish…

As you may have heard, we’ve made some major personnel changes. We are looking to hire new journalists — our old staff was great, but we are now focusing much more on community support, and so we are looking for journalists with extensive wiki experience, and journalists with fact checking passion. Effectively, 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.

Last year, Wales had outlined a somewhat more journalist-dependent vision for WikiTribune, noting that many previous citizen journalism efforts had

…kind of hit a wall. There’s only so much that people can do in their spare time, from home, and so that model proved to be partially successful but fairly limited. I saw that what you actually need is a hybrid model. 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.

On the Talk page for Wales and Kopel’s piece — every WikiTribune story has a Talk page, as at Wikipedia — the usefulness of reporters was a subject of debate. Here’s journalist Henry Harington, an active user of the site:

One does not ask a community to undertake one’s open heart surgery, we have representative democracies where we delegate authority to those who (we hope!) will conduct affairs of state in our interests, we employ a mechanic to fix our cars. Is the idea of a “community” in Wikitribune going to deskill and de-professionalise news gathering? I reject the idea that a democratic deficit can be filled by democratised journalism. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to understanding what the Wikitribune community is and what it should contribute?

Let me declare an interest here: I am a reporter. That is my job and my skill. It does not put me “above” a community or a readership, but it does equip me with tools that allow me to observe, interpret and report what I see as accurately and objectively as I can. I write about things as an ordinarily interested observer may do, but without the personal and emotional input…

Wikitribune’s leadership role is not to have reporting that places reporters “above” a community of a readership but imposes a professional imprint on Wikitribune’s output in reporting and writing.

Wales disagrees:

Hi Henry, while I agree that journalistic training should equip one “with tools that allow me to observe, interpret and report what I see as accurately and objectively as I can” there is a serious hubris amongst too many journalists, who as a class in practice do an absolutely miserable job of that as compared to, for example, Wikipedians, in terms of thinking they are the only ones who can do that.

To be clear, there are many excellent journalists who do live up to ideals of neutrality — or at least try to, while being employed by publications which are increasingly not in the least interested in paying for that kind of journalism. Clickbaity rants are what the marketplace is rewarding today, and even serious organizations who hate that fact, are struggling to grapple with it.

That is certainly one way to view journalists.

Another Wales article gave guidance to the users who were about to be given publishing power:

This is an experiment. Please be careful with it. The basic requirements for something to be published are a judgment that it’s relatively complete (but it doesn’t need to be DONE because nothing is ever DONE in this world), doesn’t contain libel or abuse, is justified with good sourcing, isn’t pushing an agenda, etc. We don’t want to hit publish on nonsense, obviously, and over time we can and should develop stronger guidelines.

The scale of WikiTribune has been limited since launch.

Its community Slack has 553 members, but this afternoon (East Coast time) only 22 were listed as currently logged in. Yesterday, 26 people made any sort of edit on the site. Wales shared a chart in Slack noting “the big spike in people logging in” after those account-upgrade emails went out, which indicated that fewer than 20 people had previously been logging in on a typical day:

One of the laid-off journalists, Charles Michio Turner, wrote on Medium that he understood the thinking behind his job loss.

Two weeks ago, the online publication underwent a significant change after laying off the entire editorial staff, including myself. It will continue purely as a wiki-site that is worth checking out…

Critics of WikiTribune may find vindication in the recent layoffs. They shouldn’t. This isn’t proof that the collaborative model is fruitless or doesn’t work.

I joined WikiTribune to learn how citizen journalism can be useful, and after a year with the organization, I’ve observed a few ways for this to be possible. The main one being: move away from the traditional “news story”…

The limitations of the story played out at WikiTribune. 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 in the TALK section, but ultimately shied away from jumping into the copy in any substantive way.

This lack of engagement wasn’t due to a lack of interest. In my eyes, it was a sign of good judgement from WikiTribune community. It would be an act of vandalism to edit someone else’s carefully constructed piece of journalism…

How journalists fit into this horizontal equation depends on how you define the profession. If journalism is solely confined to breaking coverage and investigative reporting, then journalists will struggle to find satisfaction in this line of work. Citizen journalism will always move to slowly, and clumsily, to replicate a traditional newsroom.

But the world of journalism extends far beyond original reporting. We live in an media environment where there is an abundance of quality journalism — the challenge is getting audiences to absorb and trust the material…

While I’m sad to leave WikiTribune, I still believe the audience can collaborate in the journalistic process. Next time you see a dubious claim on the internet, think about posting it on WikiTribune.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 24, 2018, 2:41 p.m.
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