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Can journalism be fixed? Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explains his cure for fake news

Jimmy Wales speaking in Montreal, April 11, 2016. Photo: AP / PA Images

The phenomenon of ‘fake news’, a term named word of the year by Collins Dictionary in 2017 due to its “ubiquitous presence” since Donald Trump’s arrival on the political scene, seems to have undermined the public’s trust in journalists. One person trying to tackle this problem is Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who recently launched a news website with a uniquely collaborative editorial and business model. We spoke to the American web entrepreneur about his plans…

In October 2017 Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched a new online service he hopes will help tackle the problem of ‘fake news’, although that’s not a phrase he likes using. “I try to avoid it because the president has muddled the meaning,” says the 51-year-old American, who is running WikiTribune from an office in The Shard tower in London, which, he is keen to stress, has been temporarily offered to his fledgling news organisation for free. “To Donald Trump fake news is any news he doesn’t like or thinks is biased against him,” Wales continues. “But there is a phenomenon of true fake news, which isn’t just low-quality clickbait journalism – it’s complete bullshit.”

Wales’s proposed solution, WikiTribune, leans heavily on the same collaborative, community-based model as Wikipedia – the digital encyclopedia he founded in 2000. A global network of volunteers works alongside paid editorial staff to research and write news stories which can be fact-checked and edited after publication by any community member. Open any story on WikiTribune’s pilot site, click on the ‘History’ tab, and you’ll see a list of spelling corrections, style changes and formatting fixes ordered chronologically, as is the case on Wikipedia. Each story has its own discussion forum where paid editorial staff and volunteers can debate suggested changes. Since these news stories can be edited ad infinitum, the idea is that they become constant works-in-progress that can evolve as more facts become known. Anybody can become a WikiTribune contributor; Wales says they don’t currently vet community members, although the site plans to block users who “don’t do the right things”.

Wales believes that this collaborative approach will help combat ‘fake news’. While Wikipedia isn’t always accurate, the site has demonstrated that the community can do a reasonable fact-checking job, considering the vast scale of the task. Wikipedia’s army of volunteers police pages with intensity and ban community members they consider vandals. Although some articles get vandalised and edited by pranksters, propagandists and those seeking to further their personal agendas, it’s generally accepted that the overall accuracy of Wikipedia has been improving over time. Wales hopes that WikiTribune will work in a similar way and the wisdom of crowds will act as a barrier to ‘fake news’ getting published on the site.

To some this may seem a risky strategy, not least because a cursory glance at the below-the-line comments on any news website would suggest that readers aren’t yet ready to be handed the keys to the newsroom. “So far we’ve had almost zero vandalism, people insulting other people,” insists Wales. Yet isn’t it galling for professional journalists to have their work edited by members of the public, even if they’re well-informed and well-behaved ones? “It’s the new model so they have to get used to it,” Wales says. “Journalists are used to turning in pieces and having editors savage them, and what we’re seeing is that they appreciate it if a member knows something and can make their story better.”

Even if Wales succeeds in building a trustworthy news resource, there will not be much WikiTribune can do to tackle the problem of ‘fake news’ on other websites. Wales says there is an echo-chamber problem on Facebook, where “networks and communities of people who aren’t sophisticated news consumers see headlines that excite or alarm them, and they share with friends who share and share again.” He cites ‘Pizzagate’, an entirely fabricated story about the Hillary Clinton campaign running a paedophile ring from a Washington DC pizzeria, and an equally bogus story about the Pope endorsing Trump, as particularly worrying examples.

Will WikiTribune be able to stem the widespread dissemination of bullshit stories? “If there’s a fake website being shared on Facebook, then we probably cannot be part of the solution,” he admits. But he hopes that his new site will have a role similar to fact-checking site Snopes, which is trusted by most people in an increasingly toxic and partisan US political environment. “I want people to say, ‘I’m seeing all this conflicting information and I want to go somewhere that sorts it out for me’ – and that place is WikiTribune,” says Wales. “It will be a place where a community can correct news and take neutrality seriously.”

A news website built on crowdsourced reporting isn’t an entirely original concept. In fact, Wales has launched one before, Wikinews, in 2004. “It has never been successful and over the years it fizzled out,” admits Wales, who has reached the opinion that pure citizen journalism, produced entirely by non-journalists, only has limited impact and that paid editorial staff are required to add experience and know-how to the setup. “People with a day job can’t just drop everything and chase a story for four days,” he says. “There are certain things a person of goodwill working in their spare time can’t do. They often have no easy way of getting access like a staff journalist at an institution. We’re trying to learn what the community wants to do and what they’re able to do.”

While Wikipedia is a charity, WikiTribune is a for-profit company. In a plea for financial support on the site, Wales jokes that launching an ad-free, paywall-free news site may be a “series of bad business decisions”, but he believes new financial models for journalism need to be tested because the current ones are broken. Paywalls, he says, are fine for financial reporting but don’t work for public-interest journalism where a wide readership is required to make a meaningful impact, and free content supported by online advertising produces a “race to the bottom” – if clickbait generates as many page views as investigative journalism, why hire senior reporters to do time-consuming work?

Wales’s solution is to directly ask the public for money. “The Guardian has been pretty successful asking readers to contribute at the bottom of every story,” he says. “Wikipedia is funded that way and I’ll take a bit of the blame for the begging messages on The Guardian which I was very supportive of [Wales was formerly on the board of the Guardian Media Group] because the old membership model – you get a tote bag or discounted museum tickets or whatever – creates a more transactional mindset. But saying ‘Give us money because we need The Guardian to exist’, that’s what I want to do [at WikiTribune]’.” In July 2017, WikiTribune was awarded €385,000 by the Digital News Initiative fund, a Google programme to support high-quality digital journalism, and it launched with a small editorial team led by Peter Bale, the former chief executive of US journalism nonprofit, the Center for Public Integrity.

The launch of WikiTribune has been met by a few sceptical voices. But it might be short-sighted to bet against a man who started a wildly ambitious experimental project and turned it into the world’s fifth-most-visited website. In a launch video for WikiTribune, Wales says that “the news is broken, but we have figured out how to fix it”. Fixing journalism is likely to be a task too great for Jimmy Wales, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see if his radical approach to reporting succeeds.


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