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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Wiki: Don’t Lose That Number   

Despite the Los Angeles Times’ fiasco, the interactive online tool holds promise for journalism.

Related reading:   Journalism’s Backseat Drivers

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

The newspaper editorial, in its traditional form, is strictly an insider's game: The elite group of writers on the editorial board hash out their opinions, draw their own conclusions and assert their stance in the morning paper.

In June, the Los Angeles Times took a bold, though temporary, departure from that model when it used a new technology to open up one of its editorials to what amounted to an online free-for-all.

Latimes.com posted the paper's Friday, June 17 editorial "War and Consequences" as a wiki, a form that allowed readers to edit or alter any part of the piece. The Times' trailblazing "wikitorial" drew lively contributions from readers across the political spectrum. But the trial came to a crashing halt in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after a handful of site visitors added pornographic images and other inappropriate material to the piece, prompting latimes.com to remove the wiki.

Does this mean news organizations should shy away from wikis? Not necessarily. Some online media experts say news sites shouldn't give up on the form too quickly.

News outlets that ignore wikis "may miss a rich opportunity to expand their influence and their brand," says Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. "Your site can become a place where citizens can share information under the auspices of a brand that cares deeply about accuracy."

Wikis let readers "do something they've never done with the newspaper before: They can edit, on the fly, text that has already been put out there, and then track the kinds of changes or contributions that others have made," she says.

That's what computer programmer Ward Cunningham had in mind when he created the first wiki software a decade ago. He conceived wiki as a way to allow colleagues to more easily discuss programming language, he wrote on his personal Web site, adopting "wiki wiki," a Hawaiian word for "quick" that he picked up on a trip to the islands, as a name for his brainchild.

A few years later, a group of wiki enthusiasts realized the potential for using that same technology to collect and publish information of interest to the general public, and Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, was born. Last year, the group launched Wikinews, which allows citizen reporters to submit news articles and to edit the work of others.

Wikipedia's and Wikinews' focus on reporting, rather than on the opinion writing that the Times attempted, provides a useful model for news sites that aim to draw more reader input.

"News organizations could offer wiki-based backgrounders and tutorials on important public topics — with a focus on the news value and public-interest aspects," wrote Amy Gahran, a freelance writer and blogger, in a contribution to the Poynter Institute's E-Media Tidbits.

Many say that an editorial doesn't lend itself to the collaborative editing process because people with opposite viewpoints will simply change each other's conclusions. The L.A. Times editorial urged the U.S. government to set a timetable for training Iraqi soldiers.

While news wikis are in the experimental stage, Paul says, "It might be better to start with issues that are not such hot buttons of controversy as the Iraq war."

Instead, she suggests that news sites use wikis to "craft event coverage that might have multiple witnesses, like a high school football game. One person could write the key story, then other people would add what they saw. Maybe the coach would correct [the name of the player] who did the big tackle," she says.

Along these lines, CNET News.com posted a wiki in June to accompany its series on India's technology renaissance (india-techwiki.com). Readers posted comments on topics ranging from competition for talented software engineers to poverty in the subcontinent. Like most wikis, the India Tech Wiki is an easily readable page of text with highlighted phrases that link to other sections of the wiki. It includes a link to a page of recent changes, which allows users to view previous versions of the piece.

A group of investigators could also use a wiki as a collection point for the information they unearth. Volunteers are perusing thousands of pages of U.S. government documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, that detail treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. The group is using a wiki to report its findings.

Scott B. Anderson, director of shared content for the Tribune Co.'s interactive unit, thinks a news site could do something similar. "This is a way that a newspaper can let its audience take part in its core mission: investigation," he says.

But mainstream media organizations shouldn't try a wiki just because it's a relatively new toy, Anderson says. "Wikis are the flavor of the month," he says. "With wikis, or with any tool, you have to think through what the tool does and how we can use it."

Anderson notes that wikis and the citizen journalism concept it supports are untested from a business standpoint. "It looks good on paper, but will sites get citizens who care enough to contribute and make it work?"

Those who do try wikis should prevent or quickly remove inappropriate posts. As the Times discovered, wikis can be a magnet for online vandals. "The open philosophy of most wikis — of letting anyone edit content — does not ensure that editors are well-intentioned," notes Wikipedia's entry on the topic.

The wiki should include tools that let readers report obscene content, and the site must respond quickly when they do, wrote blogger Jeff Jarvis in a post about the L.A. Times situation. "If you do not respond and they are calling a 911 line that never answers, then it will turn into — as this did — outtakes from Caligula."

Having built their reputations and industry on the notion of reporting what they know, traditional media are struggling with a loss of control when it comes to allowing visitor input through tools like wikis, the University of Minnesota's Paul says. "The medium has always been, 'You'll take what we give you and you'll like it or you won't, but here it is.' Now the audience wants to have individual control over the news it gets through news alerts, filters and the ability to contribute and talk back.

"A small but powerful and growing group of news consumers has an appetite for tools like wikis and an expectation that they will have these tools available to them. A lot of the time it means the cutting out of the middle man," she says. "That's where news organizations have to adopt an attitude of, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.'"