The Cheat Sheet

Jimmy Wales, WikiTribune and the future of news

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on November 01, 2017
WikiTribune?

Wales’ latest venture. This time it’s a news service. Well, sort of. The Wikipedia founder wants to call it a pilot project for a “new approach” to journalism. He calls it a global, multilingual, high quality, neutral news service.

But what’s new in this?

Community involvement, according to Wales. He says this will form and shape the core of all operations at the WikiTribune news project. Which means, ‘trusted’ users of the site will have equal rights as the staff of WikiTribune.

But who’ll define ‘trusted’?

Well, as is the case with all Wiki projects, the community will debate policies in detail and formulate rules for the news service. And Wales’ plan looks smart on paper: he wants the new entity to focus on as many languages as possible and be more concerned with being “right than being first”, and report objectively, factually and fairly. WikiTribune’s tagline is cheeky and crispy: The new is broken, but we’re going to fix it.

Interesting. But who’ll fund this mission?

In all likelihood, and given the example of Wikipedia, Wales’ new venture will also seek support from the public. This crowd-funded model of journalism is something that’s catching the fancy of several entrepreneurs across the globe now. Many, like Wales, think it has more advantages than traditional ownership models. Editorial freedom tops the list.

But news is not a profitable business across the globe now, right?

Right. Traditional media companies are facing the heat from advancements in technology and shifts in reader interests, thanks to the arrival of social media news outlets. In the US itself, print newspaper advertising revenues fell from some $60 billion to nearly $20 billion between 2000 and 2015. This decline wiped out whatever the industry had earned in the past 50 years, according to the US News Media Alliance.

But that’s kind of inevitable. Is the online media growing in the meanwhile?

Well, not so much. There are hyped reports on the growth in online media, but the fact is social media has killed the online news media star well before it has started shining. Twitter has hijacked ‘breaking news’. And FB has become the biggest news disseminator. To make matters worse, robots have started writing news — even horror fiction.

Robots?

You heard me. Google has given the British Press Association $805,000 to build software to auto-write 30,000 local stories a month. Major news agencies now use robots powered by a news writing algorithm to compile data and press releases and produce news. Recently, a robot named Shelley became the “the world’s first collaborative AI horror writer”.

Wow!

Equally important is a trend menacing the world of information dissemination: Fake News. In the so-called ‘post-truth’ world, where factually incorrect news is spreading across media and is consumed in real-time by billions, a public-supported project that focuses on fact-based, objective reporting becomes significant. But it won’t be an easy ride.

What are the odds?

There is a reason why Wales says the news is broken. Today, news, especially digital news, is heavily customised and personalised using Big Data and other analytical tools. Most readers won’t even know that the news they’re reading on their screens is tailored to suit their needs, moods and wants: an alien algorithm is merrily controlling their consumption of news content. This has broken news and needs fixing.

That’s worrying.

Indeed. Ironically, Wales’ mission is a fight against the very apparatus that has given him the power to do what he does — technology. WikiTribune will have to fight the wrong tech with the right tech. Whether it can win the battle is a billion-dollar question.

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Published on November 01, 2017
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