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Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales says his crowd-sourced news platform will hire journalists again in future despite cutting staff

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has said there will be journalists working on his crowd-sourced news website Wikitribune again in the future, despite firing his entire editorial staff last month.

“I very firmly think that citizen journalism can only go so far and there is a need for staff journalists and that a hybrid model is the answer,” Wales (pictured) told Press Gazette.“That hasn’t changed.”

Wikitribune, which has been in a pilot phase for just over a year, describes itself as a “news platform that is primarily about volunteers doing neutral, factual, high-quality news” with a “very high degree of transparency and accountability”.

It was launched with the aim of being the “first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen”.

However, its ten to 12 editorial staff were laid off last month after Wales decided the website had lost its way.

“One of the things we realised is that we had inadvertently created a hierarchical culture that the journalists were above the community and that’s not what the original vision was,” Wales said.

“We had great journalists who were working very hard to empower the community, but the truth is if all of the journalism staff members are admins and none of the community members are admins it’s hard for them to genuinely feel like equals.”

A former Wikitribune journalist told Press Gazette the editorial team was made redundant at the beginning of October after being informed at a staff meeting that costs were unsustainable.

Wales told them crowdfunding alone would not support the editorial team and the project had yet to attract any larger investors.

In his announcement about the changes, Wales said he planned to hire “journalists with extensive wiki experience, and journalists with fact-checking passion”, but he has now confirmed this process will not get underway until a current software redesign is completed.

Wales confirmed he would hire journalists again, saying that he wanted a balance of power between staff and users because he has “never been a big believer in citizen journalism – but I also don’t think we should underestimate what communities of thoughtful people can accomplish”.

Wikitribune, like Wikipedia, allows anyone to sign up and begin editing stories. Once they become more active and more trusted, they gradually gain more abilities and can eventually become administrators for the site.

As the editorial team was let go, Wales gave wider permissions to thousands of non-journalist users to publish material as “part of a strategic shift to put community forward more than ever before”.

Articles appear online from conception but are marked as drafts until they are deemed “good enough” or “relatively completed” – which can mean different things for different types of stories, Wales said.

Stories can still be edited once they are published.

“For a simple fact check where a politician stated a specific number… it’s true or false so you can be done quite quickly,” said Wales.

“For other things, a group of people together might say it’s not quite ready, there’s still more information we’re gathering. It’s more of a judgement call.

“The idea is to say if something is a draft it’s an invitation to participate and it’s also a warning of saying ‘we’re not saying this is finished yet so if you see a half sentence it’s because it’s still a draft’.”

Wales estimated there are 12-24 people currently “really active” in the community’s “core group”, which he said reminds him of the early days of Wikipedia “when there were a dozen of us plugging away and brainstorming ideas”.

He said he hopes the model of staff journalists working alongside community members could be one way of fighting back against the rise of “fake news” and a “post-truth world”.

“I believe that the future of democracy, the future of peace, the future of human rights and justice of all kinds depends on an informed public and I think almost no-one would argue that the current media landscape is ideal.

“Local journalism has been destroyed, but there are problems at all levels –  financial problems and so on. And I think that everybody who has the opportunity to should work on this problem.”

Wales said he hoped to find a way to find a way to make a Wikitribune style crowd-sourced model work for local news that could plug the gaps left behind by local newspaper closures.

Giving the example of high school sports coverage in the US, he said: “That kind of local reporting is done by journalists who are paid, but it’s not really sustainable and it’s the kind of thing I could easily see community members doing…

“If you can find a way for that community to participate in reporting on that kind of thing where they have access, they have the ability, they have the knowledge, then you free up your limited resources for your journalism staff to cover the stories that are actually not easy for the community to do – they may be investigative stories, they may be asking the hard questions [of politicians].”

Wales said that before he could expand the Wikitribune model into local communities, he first had to “get the software where I want it to be and build the community model – there’s still interesting stuff to do”.

Among them is working out how to make Wikitribune profitable as it is currently losing money. The site has no paywall and no display advertising because Wales said he wants the focus to be on readers, although he would not rule out ads forever.

“I haven’t said we’ll absolutely never run any ads. I think it can be part of a healthy mix, but I didn’t want them [at the start], I don’t want them right now because I think it dilutes the focus.

“I want everybody focused on that relationship with the reader and the relationships with the community.”

Adverts also mean you “live or die” on your page views, Wales added. “If you double your page views you double your revenue. For us it’s much more complicated than that.

“Doubling page views could actually be a negative thing for our revenue numbers if we’re publishing stuff that people are like ‘this is the same clickbait crap I read everywhere, why should I support this?’”

The website is now at a “sustainable level”, he said, with a few thousand monthly supporters.

A message from Wales on the website tells potential supporters their donations will “help us to improve the technology and hire more journalists” for the site.

Wales’s current focus remains on growing a “healthy community [of] thoughtful, kind people who are diligently working to do something interesting”, adding: “Everything else follows eventually.”

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