Will Wikitribune help combat fake news?

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Media captionJimmy Wales has launched Wikitribune: a crowd-sourced news website

Jimmy Wales has launched Wikitribune: A crowd-sourced news website full of high-quality impartial news (eventually).

His interest in news media is nothing new. For years, the founder of Wikipedia, he has expressed concern about how to guarantee the future of quality journalism, and even been talked of as a potential investor in existing media companies.

But when I spoke to him yesterday, it was clear that there was something new - or rather three things - that finally turned his long-standing interest into the reality of Wikitribune.

The first is what we call fake news. Fake news is a multi-faceted thing, and not altogether new; but it is undoubtedly the case that the deliberate, viral spreading of misinformation, either for commercial or political ends, has radically spiked around some of the big news events of the past year. Moreover, efforts to tackle it have often been pathetic thus far, and less often successful. This really irks Wales, and quite right too.


The second recent development is the radical shift in online advertising, where the strength of Facebook and Google - who are gobbling up ever more digital advertising dollars - is creating a race to the bottom. "I'm very concerned by the advertising-funded model, which is creating a lot of clickbait", he told me.

And third, mounting evidence that people are willing to pay for high-quality news. Wales cited New York Times subscriptions and Guardian membership. He might also have mentioned the Financial Times.

To address the first two of these developments, Wales is looking to the third: he wants to get users to pay for news, and then play a hugely active role in determining its focus.

I argued recently that charity is a poor basis for journalism; much better to get users to pay. Wales agrees. He thinks by asking users to invest financially, they are more likely to invest emotionally too. I think he's onto something - but it depends on whether what they get as a result is worth investing in.

And here's the rub.

Nobody, but nobody, has as much credibility as Jimmy Wales when it comes to proving the wisdom of crowds exists online, or that the sheer scale of the open web allows knowledge to be shared and chronicled. But can the spirit of public participation that drove an online encyclopaedia also drive online news?

We don't know, because the fascinating thing about Wikitribune - whose name is redolent of old newspapers - is that it isn't just reinventing the commercial model for journalism: it's reinventing the editorial one too.

Gatekeepers and curators

The function of an editor is mainly to select what to put in and what to leave out. News has traditionally been selected by editors, who are gatekeepers and curators. But Wales, who is the founding editor of this publication, doesn't see it like that. "It's more a management role than editorial vision or pursuing an agenda," he told me.

This is fascinating, and sounds very similar indeed to the arguments Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, deployed when he published a dossier on Donald Trump.

It is a curious fact that while setting out to save journalism, Jimmy Wales is abolishing one of its most traditional roles. He would argue, of course, that he is giving power back to the audience in a way they have never had before: letting them be the editors, rather than pompous blowhards who think they know best.

This might discomfort many a grandee in the news profession; but if the man from Wikipedia provides a business model that sustains top notch reporting, they might thank him eventually.

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