Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales plans to a hire a small number of journalists for a “news-focused social network” in the hopes of finding an audience for his failed crowd-sourced news platform Wikitribune.
Wales launched WT Social last month and said he plans to recruit journalists early next year, with users acting as their “editors-in-chief”. He said the new platform would better enable “spontaneous collaboration”.
Wikitribune originally employed about ten to 12 journalists who created content and hit publish on stories for the site.
But the whole editorial team was laid off in October last year after Wales told them costs were unsustainable with not enough money coming in from crowdfunding and no major investors.
He instead enabled thousands of users to publish articles, a right that had previously been limited to Wikitribune’s staff journalists.
‘The journalists are here to serve…’
Wales told Press Gazette: “We tried lots of things, and the journalists I had were really great at trying to counter this, but there was a real feeling that this site was a journalists’ website and you as a member are allowed to help them as a junior mini-journalist on the side. And that just didn’t really work.
“Whereas to really foster that sense of community engagement and moral ownership of what they’re doing, you kind of want to reverse that and say actually the journalists are here to serve whatever you’re interested in so send them out, get them busy, you be the editor-in-chief and direct their work.
“We’re going to work on that early next year, but I’m not promising a particular date,” Wales said, adding that there is a “huge backlog” of features to be rolled out on the site first.
The precise number of journalists he will hire depends on the funds generated by the new site, he said.
Users of WT Social can post and discuss links in a similar way to other social networks, but with more control over how they appear on the site, for example through the capability to edit “misleading” headlines.
The website currently has 200,000 people in a waiting list, with more than 70,000 users granted access in the first month.
Users are being added gradually to help the small team of three developers and a community manager cope with demand.
Wales told Press Gazette he plans to hire a small number of journalists to identify demand and create content for communities in the site’s “subwikis” – topic-based sub-sections of the website akin to Reddit.
He said: “We’ll say: ‘Here are some of the most active communities, you work for them – what do they need you to do? What are the things that they want you to look into? Who do they want you to go and hunt down and interview?’
“So it’s really putting journalists at the disposal of people who are in a certain area.”
Wikitribune design was ‘too intimidating’
Wales admitted this was the original concept for Wikitribune, but said it didn’t work because the design of the site made it “too intimidating” and “too difficult” for non-journalists to participate.
“People felt like ‘okay I have to go and write a whole big piece, edit it, publish it, all of that’ rather than just sharing, interacting in a much more casual way,” he said.
“So far [on WT Social] that’s proven to be overwhelmingly true. People come on the platform and they’re discussing things, sharing things, writing things in a much more fluid way.”
WT Social uses a similar donations system to Wikitribune, but Wales said it is “asking people for money in a much more open way”.
He added that he wasn’t comfortable “pestering” users for money on Wikitribune because he “needed to make it better” and “traffic wasn’t very high so it wouldn’t have done any good anyway”.
‘It’s like Wikipedia – if you want to pay, then pay’
But he said “now it’s a completely different story”. WT Social is free to use but users are told they can skip the waiting list if they contribute £10 per month or £180 per year.
“It’s like Wikipedia – if you love it and you want to pay, then pay,” Wales said. “If you pay, that’s going to help us spawn more features and hire journalists but there’s no requirement to pay.”
WT Social is free of advertising, which allowed it to distinguish itself from its competitors, Wales said. “If you have the same incentives as everyone else then you’re going to end up doing the same thing as everyone else.”
He said that after some “great” stories written by journalists at Wikitribune got “very little traffic”, he realised the only way to get reach was through clickbait headlines and algorithms to keep people on the site for longer.
“And I just didn’t want to do that,” Wales said. “So the idea is if you’ve got a different business model of voluntary payment then your incentives are very different.
“Instead of thinking about how do we get the maximum number of page views and the maximum number of clicks, it’s like how do we impact people’s lives in such a positive way that they would say this means something to me, I’m willing to chip in to make this happen.”
‘I do my best work if I just create something I like’
Wales said WT Social’s subwikis would be less “toxic” than Reddit’s subreddits because creators of each topic section on the site are given the same moderating or editing capabilities as other users, stopping them from becoming what he described as an “absolute monarch”.
The website states that the “weird news” subwiki would only use reliable sources. “We’ll be very strict about that here,” it says. Other top sections so far include fighting misinformation, long reads, upcoming newsworthy events, and science.
Wales said the idea was to feature a broader range of content, pointing to a traditional newspaper filled with sports, gardening and cookery columns, and commentary, as well as hard news.
He compared the overall look of the website to Facebook’s news feed and to Twitter, because users can follow people and see what they post.
But asked where exactly WT Social will sit in the online ecosystem between news platforms and social networks, Wales admitted: “I have no idea.
“It’s one of these things where I always find I do my best work if I just create something that I like and I hope other people like it so I don’t normally think about competitive landscape and things like that.”
Picture: Reuters/Charles Platiau