On Thursday I’ll be presenting my paper on wiki journalism at the Future of Newspapers conference in Cardiff. As previously reported, the full paper is available as a wiki online for anyone to add to or edit. You can also download a PDF of the ‘official’ version.
Based on a review of a number of case studies, and some literature on wikis, the paper proposes a taxonomy of wiki journalism, and outlines the opportunities and weaknesses of the form. The following is the edited highlights:
A taxonomy of wiki journalism
There are key qualities that must be identified when examining the use of wikis in journalism:
- Whether the topic is defined by an editor, or a user
- Whether the first draft is produced by a journalist paid to do so, or by a user
- Whether the material could have been produced without using wiki technology
- Whether the timescale is finite (‘frozen’ for print publication), or infinite (ongoing)
- Whether the wiki draft is professionally edited further for ‘final’ publication (in contrast to those which are edited solely by users)
Based on variations in the above, we can identify five broad types of wiki journalism:
- ‘Second draft’ wikis: a ‘second stage’ piece of journalism, during which readers can edit an article produced in-house (Wired article, Esquire, LA Times wikitorial)
- Crowdsourcing wiki: a means of covering material which could not have been produced in-house (probably for logistical reasons), but which becomes possible through wiki technology (San Diego Tribune’s AmpliPedia; Wired How To Wiki)
- Supplementary wiki: a supplement to a piece of original journalism, an ‘add-on’: “A tab to a story that says: Create a wiki for related stories” (Francisco, 2006) (CNET’s India Tech Wiki; parts of the Wired How To Wiki)
- Open wiki: an open space, whose subject matter is decided by the user, and where material may be produced that would not otherwise have been commissioned (Wikinews)
- Logistical wiki: a wiki limited to in-house contributors which enables multiple authorship, and may also facilitate transparency, and/or an ongoing nature (Dewey Answers; N&Opedia)
This taxonomy can be mapped out as follows:
|User-defined topic?||User-created draft?||Impossible without wiki?||Infinite?||Unedited?|
This taxonomy is not definitive, but indicative: it is possible, for example, to have a second-draft wiki that was ongoing (infinite), but the suggestion is that this would be atypical. The taxonomy aims to provide a conceptual framework through which to analyse examples of wiki journalism. It highlights the range of types of wiki journalism in their relation to ‘pure’ wiki-ness: Open wiki journalism, for example, has all the qualities that could be argued are inherent in the form; whereas Second-Draft wiki journalism has none. The taxonomy also highlights the closeness of certain types of wiki journalism: Second-Draft and Crowdsourcing types, for instance, are almost identical save for the fact that a piece of Second-Draft wiki journalism does not need the audience in the same way.
Strengths of wiki journalism
Wikis allow news operations to effectively cover issues on which there is a range of information so broad that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to summarise effectively in one article, or by one journalist, alone. Examples might include local transport problems, experiences of a large event such as a music festival or protest march, guides to local restaurants or shops, or advice.
Jay Rosen (2006) explains it as follows:
“A professional newsroom can’t easily do this kind of reporting; it’s a closed system. Because only the employees operate in it, there can be reliable controls. That’s the system’s strength. The weakness is the organization knows only what its own people know. Which wasn’t much of a weakness until the Internet made it possible for the people formerly known as the audience to realize their informational strengths.”
Internally, wikis also allow news operations to coordinate and manage a complex story which involves a number of contributors. News organisations interested in transparency might also publish the wiki ‘live’ as it develops, so readers can view as it develops, and look at previous versions, while the discussion space which accompanies each entry also has the potential to create a productive dialogue with users.
Wikis offer a way for news websites to increase their reach, while also increasing the time that users spend on their website, a key factor in attracting advertisers: user generated content has proved hugely successful in attracting readers, accounting for 60% of pageviews on some websites. When successful, a wiki can engender community. And a useful side-effect of community for a news organisation is reader loyalty.
Economically, wikis appear to offer the attractions of free “user generated” content, and, in the case of published articles, free subediting. But these attractions are misleading: the disadvantages of the form mean costs elsewhere, in maintenance and monitoring. Talking about wiki operations in general, Andrew Frank, a research director at technology consulting firm the Gartner Group, is quoted as suggesting (PDF) “The assertion that these sites are cheap to run is questionable. For example, to sell a substantial amount of advertising, wiki sites might have to filter for objectionable content”. Jeff Howe also argues “Attempting to use crowdsourcing simply as a cost-saving measure [doesn’t work]. Communities must be cultivated, respected and deftly managed if they are to come together to create economic value. This takes talented staff, and a set of skills not taught in journalism or business schools.”
Weaknesses of wiki journalism
Shane Richmond identifies two obstacles that could slow down the adoption of wikis: inaccuracy and vandalism, “Particularly in the UK, where one libellous remark could lead to the publisher of the wiki being sued, rather than the author of the libel. Meanwhile, the question of authority is the biggest obstacle to acceptance by a mainstream audience.”
Vandalism, a problem known as “trolling”, is a recurring issue in wiki technology. Wikis such as Wikipedia have generally taken a “soft security” approach, making damage easy to undo rather than attempting to prevent its occurence in the first place:
“When vandals learn than someone will repair their damage within minutes, and therefore prevent the damage from being visible to the world, the bad guys tend to give up and move along to more vulnerable places.” (Gillmor, 2004: 149)
The author of the Wired experiment also feels there is a need for an editorial presence, but for narrative reasons: “in storytelling, there’s still a place for a mediator who knows when to subsume a detail for the sake of the story, and is accustomed to balancing the competing claims and interests of companies and people represented in a story.”
A further complication for news organisations used to the deadlines and production cycles of print and broadcast is the long timescales involved in building a successful wiki and the communities needed to maintain it. Wikinews contributor Erik Moll notes the reduced incentive for readers to contribute to articles with a short shelf life: “Wikinews articles are short-lived, so there is a reduced feeling of contributing to a knowledge base that will last a lifetime”
Issues around authorship and remuneration also need addressing, although models do exist, including the Creative Commons initiative, and the system used by OhMyNews, which shares copyright and insists contributors disclose bank account details for payment.
Finally, one of the biggest disadvantages may be readers’ lack of awareness of what a wiki even is: only 2% of Internet users even know what a wiki is, although similar statistics were once applicable to blogs.
So far the most highly publicised experiments with the form (the ‘Wikitorial’; Wired’s wiki article; the Esquire Wikipedia article) have been of the ‘Second draft’ variety, relinquishing the least amount of control over content, and incorporating wiki technology into pre-existing work processes: the subject of the article is still chosen by editors, the first draft is written by a journalist, and only then does the wiki community take control, taking a role as a second journalist/editor in the process.
In these cases the article has also been ‘frozen’ at some point for publication, often only days after first being published online, something which could be seen as ‘unnatural’ for a wiki. Furthermore, freezing wikis reduces the opportunity to allow vandalism to be cleaned up over time, underexploits the ability to look at various ‘edits’ of an article/topic/event as it develops over a long period of time, and removes the opportunity to build an online community.
In contrast, outside of traditional news operations, Wikinews and Wikipedia have adopted an ‘Open’ model, relinquishing almost all control, with huge success for Wikipedia, but less for Wikinews, perhaps because of the inclusion of ‘short-shelf-life’ material.
Timescale appears to be a key variable in the success of wiki journalism as, between these two types on the wiki journalism continuum, the most successful models of wiki journalism have involved subject matter with a long shelf life, that builds, and taps into, a community that is wiki-literate and willing to contribute.
This community, and the management of community, are crucial to the shape that wiki journalism takes. But creating a community is difficult and, once created, that community may not act in ways the wiki owner wants them to:
“Real community is a self-creating thing, with some magic spark, easy to recognize after the fact but impossible to produce on demand, that draws people together. Once those people have formed a community, however, they will act in the interests of the community, even if those aren’t your interests. You need to be prepared for this. [T]hey may well treat you, the owner of the site, as an external perturbation. Another surprise is that they will treat growth as a perturbation as well, and they will spontaneously erect barriers to that growth if they feel threatened by it.[...] Many of the expectations you make about the size, composition, and behavior of audiences when you are in a broadcast mode are actually damaging to community growth. To create an environment conducive to real community, you will have to operate more like a gardener than an architect.” (Shirky, 2002)
But investment made in building this community can produce significant results. Scott B. Anderson, director of shared content for the Tribune Co.’s interactive unit, says “This is a way that a newspaper can let its audience take part in its core mission: investigation”, and there are increasing examples of ‘crowdsourcing’ methods, of which wikis are just one, being used to build journalism projects that would otherwise not have taken place.
This inevitably raises issues of access, and the proportion and type of user who will contribute to a wiki. Nielsen’s research on participation inequality found a ’90-9-1′ rule whereby 90% of users are “lurkers” who do not contribute, 9% “contribute a little”, and 1% account for “almost all the action”, while McCawley (2007) notes: “there were more major contributors to the 1911 Britannica than there are to Wikipedia and the front page of Digg is controlled by fewer people than the front page of the New York Times.”
But Alex Bruns also argues that “In itself this does not undermine the project of open news any more than the fact that not everyone is a software programmer undermines the project of open source: even those who do not engage with the deliberations taking place within open news can still benefit from their outcomes as they emerge.” (2005: 74), while Pavlik asks: “Is the knowledge gap reason enough to resist the development and growth of online journalism? Definitely not. Although some segments of society are likely to benefit more rapidly than others, all groups will eventually gain. Moreover, even the classical media are subject to the same knowledge-gap effect [and] if anything, new media present a possible reversal of the knowledge gap by eliminating the barriers to entry into the journalism marketplace.” (2001: 144)
It could also be argued that the ’90% lurkers’ statistic is misleading, focused as it is on any one site, where most people are going to be ‘passing through’. In contrast, when the focus moves to individual people, the figures change dramatically: a Pew study in 2003 found that 44% of adult American internet users had contributed content online (PDF). Even with 10% of users contributing, the case can be made that a local newspaper with 40,000 print readers would not have previously expected to tap into an army of around 4,000 contributors.
Even so, the skills to manage a community and give a ‘voice to the voiceless’ become important, and to that end an increasing number of news organisations are creating ‘Community Editor’ roles. The case of the BBC’s ‘user generated content’ unit is worth noting here: the team of over two dozen staff not only manages incoming contributions, but also looks to balance proactive voices by physically seeking out others who may not have access to communication technologies.
The Telegraph are planning an internal wiki as a precursor to public experiments with the technology. The BBC has been using wikis internally for some time, particularly for product development and distributed team working within BBC Future Media & Technology, while a straw poll of senior media professionals shows enthusiasm about the potential of the technology in organisations including Channel 4, BSKYB, and FT.com.
Even of those opposed to, or unaware of, the use of wikis in journalism, Gahran notes that “Most [had] used, shared documents via services such as Google Docs or Zoho [...] Once they get used to the idea of collaborating on a document (any document, really) via the Web, wikis start to look more appealing and make more sense.”
A number of projects in 2007 indicate that we may be seeing a new stage in the evolution of wiki journalism. In terms of Rushkoff’s (PDF) three stages of development in the growth of participatory media - deconstruction of content, demystification of technology and finally do-it-yourself or participatory authorship - it could be suggested that some publications, in particular the San Diego Tribune AmpliPedia and Wired’s How-To Wiki, are emerging from the first stage of deconstruction of content and that, if wiki journalism is to become part of the online journalist’s toolbox, the next challenge is further demystification of wiki technology, with time and money invested in facilitating participation.
Wikis are blogs 2.0: like blogs, they provide an arena for readers to critique and correct, to self-publish, and to form communities. But while they share many characteristics with blogs and older technologies such as discussion forums, the significance of wikis lies in the way they move away from the linear call-response communication models that those technologies reflected. If blogs are a distributed discussion (PDF), then wikis offer a single place for that discussion to reach (ongoing) concensus.
The range of voices editing each other tends to result in a fact-based piece of work that represents the ‘Neutral Point Of View’ (NPOV) formalised by Wikipedia, and which, potentially, avoids some of the biases inherent in individual, commercial journalism. The networked nature of wiki technology allows for genuine collaboration and community, as well as holding enormous potential for transparency and a more impartial concensus. Whether this potential is realised depends on the investment and understanding that is brought to any wiki project.
In other words, wiki journalism will only flourish if as much time and care is invested in wikis as are invested in traditional journalism. Weaknesses such as vandalism and inaccuracy can be addressed if staff are assigned to monitor and facilitate the wiki – to prevent legal issues, to attract A-List contributors (and monitors), and build genuine online communities. This will involve a new skills set for those involved, and it will involve a fresh look at copyright, legal and ethical issues. Hardest of all, it will involve relinquishing control over what has traditionally been a news organisation’s biggest asset - content – in order to rebuild another that has recently been neglected: the community that may be key to journalism’s future both editorially and economically.