Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is no stranger to bucking a trend. When Wikipedia launched it was in direct competition with the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, and the smart money would have been on Britannica, with a solid track record stretching all the way back to the 1700s and a business model that worked: information written by professionals, and purchased by users.
Wikipedia, by contrast, offered a free-to-access, crowd-sourced information model, with a seemingly endless sprawl of information curated by thousands of editors, and a questionable business model – yet it emerged the victor.
Now Wales is turning his attention to news with his latest venture, Wikitribune, a news source dedicated to “factual and neutral” reporting. With the growing sense that news sources are losing their impartiality and standards because of their funding modes, and with claims of 'fake news' surrounding every major event recently, Wales felt something needed to change.
Wales has in the past been pretty vocal about his feelings when it comes to the responsibilities of the media, but in a recent interview with the BBC he made clear that there were three major driving factors behind the move to start Wikitribune now.
The first is the current rise of ‘fake news’. With Facebook, Twitter and Google all taking steps to fight the rise of news stories created to manipulate people, it's an issue that's being taken increasingly seriously.
The second is the current business model that online media operates within. With advertising driving revenue, media companies can get into a situation where the desire for site visits leads to the proliferation of ‘clickbait’ articles and headlines, making money for the company at the expense of the user.
The third is a growing trend of users showing that they're willing to pay for what they consider to be reliable and good quality news, with Guardian and New York Times subscriptions proving a strong business model for online news.
The last of these is especially interesting as it’s pretty much the opposite of what created Wikipedia's success, with the idea of a paid competitor potentially beating a free one. But at this point, the currency that seems more valuable to Wales is truth.
“I think we're in a world right now where people are very concerned about making sure we have high-quality fact-based information, so I think there will be demand for this,” Wales told the BBC.
Although using the Wiki brand, Wikitribune is an independent project from Wales, not affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikipedia Foundation, and the move makes sense. In 2004 the Wiki group launched Wikinews, a news site that ran on the same model as Wikipedia – crowd-sourced, free-to-access information.
Wikitribune will follow a more traditional journalistic model in terms of the way it's run, with professional journalists writing the stories, working under an editor.
Where it becomes interesting is the role that the editor has in the framework. Whereas in a traditional publication the editor is the one responsible for shaping the ‘voice’ of the output through the selection of what subjects are going to be covered, in the Wikitribune model the users will have a greater hand in dictating the output, relegating the editor to “more a management role than editorial vision or pursuing an agenda”, according to Wales.
If a large number of subscribers are interested in a specific topic, a journalist gets hired to handle that topic. It makes sense editorially. The difficulty is that it’s fairly easy to picture such a publication becoming an echo-chamber, with users only getting the news that they want to get – not great if the whole purpose of your publication is neutral, factual news.
Wales clarified: “It's the monthly supporters who will be able to determine what are the topics we are going to cover. But it is going to be neutral. They can't pick their favorite hack, who pumps forward their agenda. That's part of the editorial control.”
It will be interesting to see how the model works, as journalists will only be hired based on the amount of subs getting paid in each month. So not only do we not know what the output of Wikitribune would be, we don’t even know how much output there would be.
“We're getting people to sign up as monthly supporters, and the more monthly supporters we have the more journalists we can hire,” Wales added. “In terms of minimums, if we could only hire two journalists then it would be a blog and not really worth doing. But I would love to start with a lot more – 10 to 20.”
So it’s early days yet, but with Wales at the helm, and advisors ranging from model and actress Lily Cole to US law professor Larry Lessig and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, Wikitribune certainly has the foundations for something very exciting.
The trial version of the site claims “the news is broken and we can fix it”. It's a bold claim, and we'll be interested to see if it can deliver on its promise.