Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales is planning a news service that combines the work of professional journalists and volunteers.
His goal is for Wikitribune to offer “factual and neutral” articles that help combat the problem of “fake news”.
The service is intended to be both ad-free and free-to-read, so will rely on supporters making regular donations.
One expert said it had the potential to become a trusted site, but suggested its influence might be limited.
Wikitribune shares many of the features already found in Mr Wales’s online encyclopaedia, including the need for writers to detail the source of each fact and a reliance on the public to edit articles to keep them accurate.
However, while anybody can make changes to a page, they will only go live if a staff member or trusted community volunteer approves them.
The other big difference is that the core team of writers will be paid, although there may also be instances in which a volunteer writes the initial draft and then a staff member edits it.
A demo version of the site, seen by the BBC, declared “the news is broken and we can fix it”.
Mr Wales explained that he believed the advertising-based model used by most of the media had led it to “chase clicks”, which affected standards.
“I think we’re in a world right now where people are very concerned about making sure we have high quality fact-based information, so I think there will be demand for this,” he told the BBC.
“We’re getting people to sign up as monthly supporters and the more monthly supporters we have the more journalists we can hire.
“In terms of minimums, if we could only hire two journalists then it would be a blog and not really worth doing.
“But I would love to start with a lot more – 10 to 20.”
The director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, however, suggested Wikitribune’s crowdfunded model might limit its potential.
“There are a variety of people who – if it does this right – will view it as a trusted platform,” commented Joshua Benton.
“But another 10 to 20 people are not going to ‘fix the news’.
“There’s certainly a model for non-profit news that can be successful if it’s done on a relatively small scale and produces a product that is unique enough.
“But I have a hard time seeing this scale up into becoming a massive news organisation.”
Mr Wales said he would be “100% hands-on” with the project in its early stages and would be likely to serve as Wikitribune’s chief executive for at least a year.
Other advisors to the scheme include:
- Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki
- Journalism lecturer Prof Jeff Jarvis
- US law professor Larry Lessig
- Model/actress Lily Cole
Although staff members will decide the topics that get written about on a day-to-day basis, funders will get to influence the contents.
“If you can get together a certain number of people who are interested in Bitcoin [for example] and you flag that when you sign up as a monthly supporter, then we’ll hire a Bitcoin person to do the beat full-time,” Mr Wales explained.
“So, it’s the monthly supporters who will be able to determine what are the topics we are going to cover.
“But it is going to be neutral. They can’t pick their favourite hack, who pumps forward their agenda.
“That’s part of the editorial control.”
By Amol Rajan, Media editor
Jimmy Wales’s interest in news media is nothing new. For years 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.
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.