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Dec. 12, 2019, 12:52 p.m.
Reporting & Production

This is how Report for America ended up funding a community Wikipedia editor (!) at a library (!!)

“Do something different and do it together.”

When Report for America announced last week that it was placing 250 journalists into 164 local newsrooms, the list of beats they’d be covering didn’t seem too out of the ordinary. It served as a sort of non-comprehensive to-cover list for local news: climate change’s impacts on a community, rural healthcare, housing struggles, immigrant issues, the effects of population loss, “political dysfunction in suburban towns.” Good but pretty standard stuff.

Then there’s this one, from Charlotte’s public radio station WFAE, the local Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and the Digital Public Library of America: a “unique partnership using both radio and Wikipedia to fill news deserts.”

What?

“Our missions are designed around equipping the community to make decisions about their lives,” said Ju-Don Marshall, WFAE’s chief content officer (and a former Nieman Fellow). “Ours comes from the news and information lens, and theirs [at the library] come from the information and reference lens. It makes sense to do something different and do it together.”

The entire collaboration involves two positions and three partners. WFAE will house a traditional journalist focusing on local government coverage. That person, though, will work with a second RFA participant with the title of “community Wikipedia editor,” who’ll be based a few days a week in the city’s local public library’s branches. That person will focus on researching and writing up under-covered topics from the library’s archives for Wikipedia articles — in particular those that are relevant to the Charlotte area.

The Digital Public Library of America — a six-year-old project aimed at sharing public access to the richest resources of libraries online — will assist the Wikipedia editor and help develop community engagement strategies through the work of their new data fellow, Dominic Byrd-McDevitt. He’s been a Wikipedia editor since 2004 and was previously at the National Archives and Records Administration.

It’s a way of thinking of news deserts vertically — digging into ideas and projects that aren’t usually surfaced by regular coverage — rather than horizontally across geographic space. It’s not just: “What places have no remaining local news?” It’s also: “What’s missed by the local news outlets in a place that still has them?”

‘We know that Wikipedia is one of the most successful info sources on the planet. We know that if we’d go look at the impeachment hearings article, we know that dozens if not hundreds of people have gone over that and had discussions and make it solid,” said John Bracken, the executive director of the Digital Public Library and the former vice president of technology innovation at the Knight Foundation. (The executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Katherine Maher, is on the DPLA board.) “We haven’t seen that Wikipedia magic applied on a sustained level in a local context, especially local communities that have been underrepresented both in journalism and Wikipedia.”

(Indeed, the Wikipedia page on the Trump impeachment inquiry has, at this writing, been edited 2,671 times by 425 different editors. And viewed 1.778 million times.)

“Being able to create the evergreen content in conjunction with the more traditional hyperlocal stories was really exciting to us, because it allows us to connect our community with the info they need, which is the mission of the library,” said Martha Yesowitch, the Charlotte Mecklenburg library’s community partnerships leader.

While this isn’t the first time that libraries and newsrooms have collaborated, it’s the first time that Report for America — to the best of cofounder Steven Waldman’s knowledge — has funded a position at a non-journalistic entity. This person’s work will be subjected to the Wikipedia editing process (which DPLA will help guide them through).

“If you look at the community in terms of the info-needs community, not in terms of the journalism needs, what are the ways in which a community gets it civically important info? The honest answer is that important players are Wikipedia and the library,” said Waldman, who back in 2011 wrote a key FCC report on “the information needs of communities.” “We’re not saying we’ll have Wikipedia volunteers — that’s where we say we need professional journalists to do the reporting where there are reporting gaps.”

Because the participants still have to selected and then trained, the exact details of these positions could shift over the next six months before they officially join for a year through RFA. (There’s a possibility of extension, as with other RFA positions.) The exact funding breakdown among the partners and the deliverables for the nontraditional role are still getting sorted out, those involved told me.

But the topics that Charlotte is seeking answers to aren’t likely to change. Marshall said that many of the questions posed to WFAE’s engagement initiative, FAQ City, show consistent confusion from residents over how the local government works: “the role of the different officials in town, what does the mayor’s office do, what is it responsible for, what are the limits of power versus the city manager, who is currently elected to the city council,” she said. “In some way it’s getting back to the basics of what local journalism used to do.”

“If you look at Wikipedia, there is an entry for Vi Lyles, the first African-American woman mayor of Charlotte, but a lot of the other city and county officials don’t have information on Wikipedia,” Yesowitch said. “I envision that the Wikipedia editor will work really closely with the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, a repository of documents and artifacts from North Carolina history, and really be able to go in and…give that context of how Charlotte has grown and developed.”


Some of the archives in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina room. Photo taken by Sarah Goldstein

This person, embedded a few days a week in different Charlotte libraries and some days in the WFAE newsroom, will also be expected to get to know the community (if they don’t already) in order to become more familiar with the questions they should be answering. And that’s another question people often raise around Report for America: Why hire a green and limited-term reporter who might not be rooted in the local culture and context?

“We attempted to go after RFA to really let us experiment in new ways of engaging our communities,” said Marshall, who worked with Waldman at his Beliefnet and LifePosts ventures. “What they’ve really done for us is give us runway to do experimentation around local news much faster than we would’ve gotten to organically for ourselves.”

WFAE has a second RFA project lined up with Charlotte’s Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia to cover immigration and deportation that also kicks off in June. In the meantime, WFAE, Report for America, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and the Digital Public Library of America have a lot of questions of their own to answer as these roles get ironed out.

“One of the things exciting about this experiment is that, if it works well, it’s replicable in every community in the country that has a library, Wikipedia pages, and a journalistic entity,” Waldman said. “It could become a model that could spread across the country and scale in a dramatic way that could make a big dent on the gaps of information.”

Photo of a girl reading at Charlotte’s Mountain Island branch library by cheriejoyful used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 12, 2019, 12:52 p.m.
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