Jimmy Wales’ WikiTribune hires launch editor as it unveils plans to publish first edition later this year
WikiTribune, the online news service set up by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, has announced Peter Bale is taking on the role of launch editor.
Wales unveiled WikiTribune in April as a site dedicated to countering fake news, using a mixture of professional reporters and volunteer contributors. It will be both ad-free and free-to-read, relying on regular donations from supporters, similar to the Wikipedia model. The money raised will go towards paying professional journalists, covering a range of subjects from US and UK politics, through to science and technology.
Bale has previously worked at CNN International, MSN and Reuters. He was formerly CEO of Center for Public Integrity. The centre was set up in 1989 and is a non-profit investigative news site with the aim of serving “democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.” The centre won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative reporting in 2014 and the prize for explanatory reporting earlier this year.
Bale has been brought in to set up the “editorial framework” of the site and help Wales recruit the remaining staff and volunteers. So far six of the 10 staff places have been filled and the first edition of WikiTribune is due later this year.
On the surface, WikiTribune appears to be an attempt to broaden the model behind Wikipedia, with a degree of emphasis on community contributions. Those who become supporters of the site will have some say in its editorial direction – around which subject areas and threads its reporters will focus on. There are also plans for readers to fact-check articles, as well as sub-edit writing on the site, similar to Wikipedia.
While that may sound like a recipe for populist appeal over editorial control, Wales says the core of the site is a dedication to facts. “We want to bring some of that fact-based, fact-checking mentality that we know from Wikipedia to news,” Wales said at the time. “Humans haven’t fundamentally changed from the way we were 100 years ago or 500 years ago. People have a thirst for quality information.”
WikiTribune will also focus on transparency, with full reporter’s transcripts, video and audio of interviews open to readers. Contributors will be able to suggest edits to any articles published, but these will need to be approved by a member of staff before going live. Wales says he hopes this mixture of outsourced fact checking with a donation-based business model will lead to journalism “that’s not about chasing clicks”.
Wales’ plans, as well intentioned as they are, have been questioned by some journalism experts. “There are a variety of people who – if it does this right – will view it as a trusted platform,” Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told the BBC. “But another 10 to 20 people aren’t 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. But I have a hard time seeing this scale up into becoming a massive news organisation.”
Whether or not the site is a success, it’s further evidence of the shifting power relationship between traditional news sources and tech companies. Apple, Facebook and Google have all had a hand in changing the media landscape over the past decade, arguably catalysing the fake news phenomena by creating ad-based echo chambers and prioritising algorithms over human editors. Now those companies are making moves to address the problem, the question is whether it’s too little too late.
Could a more drastic rethink of journalism work if it borrows the Wikipedia model? Or is Benton right, that what works for an online encyclopedia maybe be hard to scale for a fully fledged news organisation?