The fake news problem has gotten so bad that now, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wants to do something about it. His new project, Wikitribune, is going to be a news website that will offer “factual and neutral” news pieces to combat the rising problem of fake news.
As with Wikipedia, Wikitribune will be ad-free and free for anyone to read, and will depend on independent donations to keep it afloat. The model is very similar to Jimmy Wales’s popular web encyclopedia, and Wikitribune is expected to be built along the same lines.
Will it be popular? Some experts seem to think so, while also suggesting that it might have a limited influence over Internet readership.
The focus of Wikitribune, as can be seen on the demo site, is “Evidence-based Journalism”, and at the top you can see the number of supporters (247 as of writing this article) and the number of journalists that Wales intends to hire, which still shows 0/10.
But There’s a Problem with the Wikitribune Concept
The majority of top news sites actually already have most of the elements that Wikitribune claims to bring to the audience. For example, “see the source” is one of their USPs. Every reputed news site cites its sources or adds a disclaimer for possible rumors or leaked information.
Of course, being ad-free, community-driven and financially transparent are essentially Wikipedia carryovers, but Wikitribune may not get the right kind of support to make it a successful news site.
For one, news is time-bound. Traditional news agencies such as Reuters, BBC and so on, have massive budgets just to make sure they are at the right place at the right time to report the news as it breaks. And that money comes from sponsors and advertisers.
A site like Wikitribune is far less likely to be able to get that kind of financial muscle without strong supporters.
Second, what sources are Wikitribune journalists going to cite other than the top news sources? That’s what’s already happening. Every newspaper, TV channel and news magazine piggy backs on the one source that broke the news, or got the “scoop”. Who else are you going to cite when you’re a smaller news website?
Third, what areas of news are they going to cover? The model Wikitribune is planning to implement will be controlled by the people who contribute. For example, as Wales explains to the BBC:
“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.
“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.”
There seems to be a lack of direction here. Moreover, unless you want to cover all the most important areas, it’s going to be extremely hard with a team of 10 or even 20 journalists, as one of Wikitribune’s advisors, actress and model Lily Cole wants to deploy as a minimum.
It’s great that the founder of Wikipedia – one of the most trusted sources of information on the Internet – is entering the news space. But the biggest question is: how does this come even close to “fixing the news,” as he puts it? How is one site with even a 100 journalists and editors going to deal with the problem of fake news?
The onus of that should fall on the technology companies that are crawling, indexing and displaying news webpages for our consumption: companies like Google, and companies like Facebook, who unintentionally allow user-generated content to pass off as news without proper verification measures.
Even if Wikitribune becomes the top news portal in the world over the next ten years, how does that solve the problem of fake news? Is Wikitribune going to ask people to ONLY read their own portal to the detriment of every other news website that was ever published on the Internet?
The truth is, even top media houses cannot stamp out fake news because they only have control over their own content – nobody else’s. Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo are the ones with the control, and even they are struggling to find ways to put checks and measures.
Wikitribune might succeed in revolutionizing traditional news delivery methodologies; it might even garner a huge paying readership – just like any other news site with a subscription model; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has the ability, in theory, to upend traditional journalism.
What is does NOT have is the power to address the fake news problem in any meaningful way.