The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 2

In my last post, I proposed some major changes to Wikipedia, such as liberalized inclusion standards, increased emphasis on news and the incorporation of social networking and casual discussion features. The aim of these ideas is to broaden the editor base to keep the unreachable goal of “the sum of all human knowledge” in sight.

In the long run, I think Wikinews has as much, if not more, of an important role to play in Wikimedia information ecosystem… especially with the shrinking ranks of professional journalists that will only shrink more as print newspapers circle the drain.

The centerpiece of my ideas for getting Wikinews Original Reporting to critical mass is to hire a professional newsroom manager to point Wikimedians in the right direction. Aside from the fact that Wikinews is a different site, with different policies and a different vibe, the main thing that stops more Wikipedians from doing Original Reporting is that they don’t know what to report on. Professional journalists are given specific assignments; newsrooms have robust systems for identifying potentially newsworthy events and dispatching local reporters ahead of time.

Wikinews could take advantage of Wikipedia’s location-based sitenotice (which lets logged-in users know about Wikipedia events such as meetups in their area) to inform potential reporters of upcoming viable reporting topics nearby. The newsroom manager would use the same kinds of information systems as traditional newsrooms to pinpoint news in progress or likely upcoming news events, and create a constant stream of local notices to attract reporters from the among the editing community.

The main problem, which many Wikipedians are familiar with, is that volunteer resources are not easily transferred. One of the perennial arguments that comes up when well-intentioned editors try to crack down on “cruft” and seemingly trivial Wikipedia content is that all that time editors spend writing about local bands and arcane fiction plot details could be better spent working on articles that matter. Editors who have been around longer just smile; it doesn’t work that way. For the most part, people only contribute in areas they are interested in. However, local news is one area that has a natural interest community… and one that is easy to single out, based on IP location.

Of course, the biggest potential strength of Wikinews (and the strongest area of original coverage now, aside from interviews) is not location-limited: internet news. Coverage of Scientology and Project Chanology is a case in point. Many Wikimedians are actually more competent than professional journalists to understand and investigate online happenings and stories related to internet culture. This is an area of coverage that I think will expand naturally once Wikinews reaches critical mass (the point where large numbers of users visit Wikinews regularly just to see what is there, because, like with the main newspapers or the professional blogs, they can always count on new and interesting content, much of which isn’t found elsewhere). There is enormous scope for tech and digital entertainment news, investigative journalism and human-interest news based on online communities, and this kind of content could take off once Wikinews reaches a certain level of confidence as not just a project that reports the news, but a project that makes the news in the same way traditional media does.

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My suggestion in the last post of increasing news coverage on Wikipedia, and eliminating all but Original Reporting from Wikinews, drew some fire from Jason Safoutin (DragonFire1024): “Wikipedia is NOT news and the quicker they realize that the better.” Part of my response is that Wikipedia can be whatever the community and the Foundation want it to be. But I should clarify; what I propose would more along the lines of a merger of the non-original reporting of Wikinews with Wikipedia. It would still be acceptable (as it is now on Wikinews) to cover local news events of primarily local interest, and ways of sorting and organizing news coverage could be implemented. The main difference would be that news coverage on Wikipedia never reaches a certified (and protected) final published form.

Another Wikinewsie, Steven Fruitsmaak, noted that “community reporting is not something that sets Wikinews apart: look at Indymedia, OhMyNews, NowPublic, … Wikinews can bring NPOV and collaborative editing to grassroots journalism.” This is an important point. Right now, there several other citizens journalism sites; citizen journalism sets Wikinews apart from mainstream media, while the Neutral Point of View policy sets Wikinews apart from other community reporting websites and the increasingly sophisticated amateur and professional blogosphere. Nevertheless, I think the market is still wide open for a citizen journalism project that has both the independence and interactivity of new media and something approaching the breadth, volume and neutrality of traditional media (i.e., something like a thriving Wikinews).

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In my next post, I discuss some possible ways to attract more subject-matter experts (e.g., academics), who so far have been reticent contribute.

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