Wikipedia-ing the news

Matt Thompson’s RJI research proposal

Five years ago, blogger Dave Winer and New York Times executive Martin Nisenholtz made a bet. “In a Google search of five keywords or phrases representing the top five news stories of 2007,” Winer wagered, “weblogs will rank higher than the New York Times Web site.”

But what fascinates me most about the site is its innovative, Web-native structure.

When it came time to judge the bet, blogs outranked the Times on four out of the five chosen stories, making Winer the winner. But the real news out of the bet was the site that trounced them both —Wikipedia.

In all that’s been written about Wikipedia, we tend to hear an emphasis on the same few details the stupefying economics of its army of unpaid volunteers; the amazing order that has arisen out of its chaotic, ad hoc editing processes; hand-wringing over whether the resource is essentially trustworthy or not. But what fascinates me most about the site is its innovative, Web-native structure. “Encyclopedia” is a useful shorthand for describing what Wikipedia aims to do, but that label fails to capture the full reality of what Wikipedia can do. As the New York Times noted last year, the Web site works astonishingly well as a hub for news. In fact, I think it points the way forward for what our news sites should become, and that is what I propose to explore and prototype in a fellowship at the Reynolds Institute.

Entries would be deeply and meaningfully interlinked to other entries

The online news sites of today remain hobbled by a framework inherited from their forbears. Almost every news site, whether affiliated with a radio outlet, a television station, a newspaper, or none of these, is structured around this one context — the most recent mix of interesting stories selected by editors. Yet users, especially those of geographically focused news sites, approach these sites with a dizzying variety of contexts in mind. What’s happening to my neighborhood? Who won last night’s game? How do I identify and contact my congressional representatives? What’s traffic like on the way to work? Who should I call to fix my faucet? In many of today’s online newsrooms, copious energy is expended addressing each of these contexts, usually one by one in near isolation.

To paint a broad picture: Imagine if the work of the hundreds of reporters dispatched daily to cover a city didn’t merely fade into an obscure archive, but added day after day to the work that came before it. An online news site in the era of Wikipedia would be a living archive, adaptable to suit any context, growing to encompass all aspects of life in a community. Entries would be deeply and meaningfully interlinked to other entries, elegantly situating every news event in multiple larger contexts. The “latest news” on the site could be a kind of changelog, reflecting new additions or edits in the system. The site would be a news commons atop which other narrative presentations of the news — stories, blogs, videos, games — could sit.

Workflow and organization: At the Star Tribune, I was the leader of a project to develop an internal taxonomy to categorize all the organization’s content and advertising. So I have a head start in thinking about how I would organize and populate a site that aimed to be the comprehensive information source for a region.

Presentation: One of the deliverables I would intend to create as part of this fellowship is a prototype of the news site in action, ideally in partnership with students or faculty from the university’s visual journalism program. I’d also explore how such a site could adapt to the increasingly distributed nature of the Web, where information exists not only in Web browsers, but also in RSS readers, mobile phones, "widgets" embedded in other Web sites, and elsewhere.

Social experience and user interaction: The largest project I have helmed during my time at the Star Tribune has been the creation of the award-winning arts-and-entertainment website, which boasts a staff of about 1.5 — a full-time designer and my part-time duties as editor. The vast majority of the content on the site is created by users. I’ve seen first-hand the power of user contributions as well as the difficulties they present. Given that the pool of potential contributors to a website with a local focus is an order of magnitude smaller than that of Wikipedia, the model for user contributions must be examined. My suspicion is that the minimally directed nature of collaboration on Wikipedia would take a much longer time to replicate on a local scale.

Business model: Several possibilities exist for creating and sustaining such a site, and each presents different advantages and challenges. Enumerating and investigating these possibilities will increase the magnitude of the project’s impact.

Storytelling and journalism standards: What does a corrections policy look like on a site that is always changing? How does Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” model align with traditional notions of journalistic objectivity, and is either model appropriate for such a site? How might the site incorporate or interact with the increasing range of storytelling techniques available to us?

Existing models: Several examples exist of geographically focused sites clearly inspired by the Wikipedia model. What can we learn from these efforts?

As well as a prototype illustrating a prospective news site structured according to this model, I would use my time at the Institute to produce a manuscript elucidating my findings. The document would serve as a roadmap for companies or communities seeking to make the idea a reality.

Journalism faces plenty of pressing questions, and I have an interest in many of them. But this question of what the next-generation news website looks like is one of the most pressing, and more than ample to capture my attention for a year. I would savor the opportunity to partner with you in pursuit of an answer.


Comments are closed.