Jimmy Wales’s WikiTribune Venture Is Laudable But Will Anyone Read It?

Let’s assume that the Fake News issue is a new one. Something that needs tackling – rather than something which has been with us for as long as we’ve had authority figures seeking to control information.

To tackle such a problem, you could perhaps start a new source of information for people. Hire a small number of skilled writers and back them up with sub editors and fact checkers. Perhaps make sure they have a network of sources to make sure they are breaking the good stuff. And support them with a small community of people with money, prepared to back it up.

It’s not a radical model. We’ve had them for a while and grouped such things under the vague term ‘newspapers” for a while.

But Jimmy Wales’ newest venture, WikiTribune may change all that. It’s an attempt to drive evidence-based journalism through the cleansing powers of crowdfunding, It’s nothing to do with either Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation (though Wales couldn’t bear to break with the Wiki part of the portmanteau to prove it). It’s further proof of Wales’ rather touching belief that we can build communities dedicated to a wider truth rather than to self interest.

His own Wikipedia example would suggest that it is at least possible. For all its faults, it remains a reliable factual repository on the web. But the community that drives it (rather than the one which uses it) remains small and it is dwindling as the technical challenges of editing become more tricky for a user base which exists more and more on mobile. The early zeal has dwindled and edits and submissions are driven by a small cabal of dedicated editors, holding the fort against an army of PR and digital marketing specialists.

For all its glories, Wikipedia is not an entertainment, and therein lies Wales’ next problem. Look at the news you consume – here, on other sites, on TV and in newspapers. The choices you make are not necessarily the ones that you know are ‘right’, they are the ones you know will entertain you. In an information economy, news organisations have learned to use celebrity and trite human interest to drive ratings and fuel clickbait. It’s become a more serious issue as the news has become more targeted and rather sinister organisations have looked to match personal data to spurious content for political means, but that process works because users yearn to be distracted above their need to be informed.

In the US presidential election, voters knew that Hillary Clinton wasn’t really running a paedophile ring. In the UK, we knew in the Brexit referendum that the NHS wouldn’t get an extra £350m but we allowed it to cloud our judgement. The danger is not that we accept at face value what is given to us, but that we consume it at all, rather than ‘proper’ journalism.

Which is where Wales hopes he comes in, with his evidence-based journalism. Quite who selects the topics to be covered is unclear, and selection in journalism is a powerful force. Quite what the role of his advisors would be in that process isn’t obvious, though we must learn to trust the wisdom of Lily Cole, and what the criteria are for hiring and editing the journalists. And quite how WikiTribune overpowers the competing models in social media and search engine optimisation is a huge question.

It’s easy to be cynical, which is why I have never stopped, but we should wish Wales well.

Crowdfunding is never as easy as people assume and finding a community who will support the project, financially, for the long term for altruistic rather than selfish reasons will be a challenge. And getting news up that enough people will want to read (rather than ought to) will be an even bigger challenge.

Evidence-based journalism without an audience is an academic exercise. Evidence-based journalism with an audience would be a huge triumph.

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