The following article appears in today’s Press Gazette, Sadly, since the demise of the /discuss webpage, this is the only place you’ll find it online:
Picture this: you write a story covering an issue on which there is a broad range of opinion – so broad that it would be impossible to summarise it effectively in one article alone. Let’s say: local transport problems. On the newspaper’s website, alongside your rather superficial analysis (quote, counter-quote, “only time will tell”) you place a ‘wiki’: a webpage that readers can not only contribute to, but also edit and change, so that one reader’s contribution is another reader’s subbing material.
Or how about this: you’re working on a story that involves reporters in Washington, London, and New York. Rather than relying on lengthy conference calls or an editor who has to read three separate articles and combine them into one, the journalists collaborate by editing a single webpage that all three have access to.
If recent discussions are anything to go by, these scenes could be part of newsroom life sooner than you think. A piece by American columnist Bambi Francisco last week argued that it was only a matter of time before more professional publishers and producers begin to experiment with using “wiki-styled ways of creating content” in the same way as they have picked up on blogs. This was picked up by Ross Mayfield, CEO of wiki company Socialtext who, guest-writing on the blog of The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond, wrote: “Unusually, it may be business people who bring wikis into the mainstream. That will prepare the ground for media experiments with wikis [and] I think it’s a safe bet that a British media company will try a wiki before the end of the year.”
A number of experiments with wikis have already shown its potential to both reach out to a readership – and to fall flat on its face. An example of the latter was the LA Times ‘wikitorial’ – an editorial piece on the Iraq war which the newspaper allowed readers to edit. After only a day the newspaper had to pull the feature due to readers flooding the site with inappropriate material.
On the positive side, however, was Wired’s experiment with the form late last year, when they allowed readers to whip an unedited article about (yes) wiki technology into shape. Over 300 users made edits, with one interviewing a Harvard expert, and another suggesting a contact – and when one user complained about some quotes from an interviewee, the original journalist, Ryan Singel, posted his interview notes so that users could pick a better one.
So can we look forward to a wiki utopia where our readers check our facts, spelling and grammar – and do our interviews to boot? Or will the wiki dream be killed off through the fear of cyber vandals treating our news websites as virgin walls for virtual graffiti?
A clue to the answer may come from the rapid adoption of blogs by newspapers and broadcasters, a move that has been fuelled in large part by economics: the appeal of free content to publishers has been strong, while at the same time the fear of losing audiences to an army of micro-publishing competitors is neatly addressed.
Like blogs, wikis offer cost-saving user generated content, instant reader community, and even – for those so desperate to trim staff that they are willing to risk ending up in court – volunteer subeditors.
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 they are different in a key way: wikis are ‘articles by committee’. The range of voices editing each other results in an often conservative, fact-based piece of work that stands firmly on the fence. This is why the ‘wikitorial’ experiment failed – if you want outspoken opinion, don’t conduct a survey.
But like blogs, wikis will only flourish if as much time and care is invested in them as are invested in editing articles. Shane Richmond identifies two obstacles that could slow down their adoption: inaccuracy and vandalism. Both can be addressed if savvy editorial staff are assigned to monitor the page and step in – both to prevent legal issues, and to facilitate those much-sought-after A-List contributors.
For now, the wiki seems likely to become an in-house tool before it reaches the news websites. The Telegraph are already planning an internal wiki as a precursor to something for readers to get their teeth into. “Once we have a feel for the technology,” says Shane Richmond, “we will look into a public wiki, perhaps towards the end of the year.”
In the meantime expect a lot of half-hearted and misguided experiments, a lot of mistakes as a result, and a lot of pooh-poohing from those without the guts to try.
Why media will embrace wikis
LA Times ‘wikitorial’ gives editors red faces [http://technology.guardian.co.uk/online/news/0,12597,1511810,00.html]
The Wiki That Edited Me
Veni. Vidi. Wiki.
Veni, Vidi, Wiki (published article)
Shane Richmond: What makes wikis work
Wiki Wild West
Change is inevitable