WikiTribune: Inside the media mashup waging war on fake news

By Kitty Knowles 7 July 2017
Image: WikiTribune.

Meet WikiTribune's journalist No.1 – Holly Brockwell.

Wikipedia – the online encyclopaedia – attracts millions of users from around the world each day.

Now, in just a few weeks time, its founder Jimmy Wales will launch a groundbreaking new media platform, WikiTribune.

Here, professional journalists and the public will contribute to articles side-by-side – in a bid to put facts first and offer an alternative to fake (or flawed) news sites.

Such an innovative project calls for intrepid staff – and WikiTribune journalist no. 1 Holly Brockwell most definitely fits that calling.

She’s been published by the likes of the BBC, The Guardian, and The Telegraph, and in 2015, even founded her own women’s tech publication Gadgette

Make no mistake: whether it flies or flops, WikiTribune will shape the future of news.

We caught up with Brockwell to get the gossip from the inside…

Kitty Knowles: Simply put, what really is WikiTribune?

Holly Brockwell: WikiTribune is kind of a mashup – Wikipedia meets digital media. It’s an online newspaper where professional journalists work alongside the community, as equals.

Journalists and the community will both be originating, investigating and publishing stories, and collaborating to edit, fact-check and add references.

But it’s not going to be a free-for-all: there’ll be clear rules on what to edit and why. You can’t replace someone’s carefully-chosen metaphor just because you thought of one you like better, but you absolutely can replace a localised reference (eg. ‘Autumn’) with a more global one (‘third quarter of 2017’) – a mistake I made in an early blog post and the community pointed it out immediately.

KK: So who’s it for?

HB: The site is designed to be global but inevitably, as we’re starting small, we’ll only be able to cover a tiny percentage of stories.

I’d define our general audience as “human beings” but more specifically, people who want to read news without an agenda or an opinion: people who just want to read verified facts in their proper context.

WikiTribune is all about neutrality.

What’s WikiTribune is aiming to solve?

It’s not much of a secret that there are some large, systemic problems in journalism.

For starters the advertising model isn’t working well for digital media – we have sites festooned with intrusive ads to try and make a living, sites threatened by adblockers, sponsored content that’s hard to tell apart from editorial – lots of problems.

And because advertising pays according to the number of clicks, we’ve ended up with clickbait and fake news sites designed just to create ad revenue. They exist to fulfil the interests of the publisher, not the audience.

WikiTribune is supported by subscriptions and will launch with no ads, so readers know it’s not influenced by corporate interests whatsoever.

If we don’t produce stuff they like, they won’t pay us.

There’s no paywall, because we don’t want to lock anyone out of news – we think enough people will subscribe to keep us going, but the only way to find out is to try.

'Jimmy Actual Wales'.

How did you come to be ‘Journo No.1’?

It’s such a funny thing. I was freelance and wasn’t actually looking for a job at all, but I saw a news story about WikiTribune and thought it was an amazing idea.

I went on the website and spotted a typo, and thought I was being ~super hilarious~ by emailing them saying it was their first crowdsourced edit. Of course, a bunch of people had already emailed the same joke, so I’m not even original in my pedantry.

My freelance signature has links to my work and history, and I mentioned in the email that I’d like to be added to a mailing list about future opportunities to write for them when the site launched.

Next thing I knew, I had an email asking to meet ‘Jimmy Actual Wales’ (as I call him).

I went, I got even more enthused about the project (although my whole interview was just me firing questions at him – interviewing journos is hard!) and a few hours later Jimmy asked me to start working there the next Monday.

And so I was the first – and for quite a while, only – journalist of WikiTribune. But now I have colleagues, and it’s lovely to have inspiring people to share lunch with.

Pic: WikiTribune.

How will WikiTribune actually work?

The site hasn’t launched just yet, so at the moment our dev team is busy creating the tech that’ll power it. We’re basing it on WordPress initially, but obviously allowing thousands of people into the backend to edit articles isn’t a common use case, so it’s taking some work.

We’ll know more when we’ve completed our soft launch, which should be within a month, but the basic idea is that there’ll be stories in-progress in the back end, which people can edit and add to.

Their changes have to be approved by a staff member or a trusted community moderator, to prevent vandalism, although no doubt someone will still find a way! We’ll figure it out as we go.

It’s launching as an online-only publication, but there’s potential for expansion in the future – into podcasts, maybe video, an app, events, who knows.

Pic: WikiTribune.

What are the 3 biggest benefits you hope to bring about?

  1. To create a trusted news brand that is entirely neutral and unbiased,
  2. To prove that advertising isn’t the only viable model for modern journalism,
  3. To show our working: WikiTribune will give access to our evidence so people can judge the truth for themselves.

And what are the 3 biggest challenges you face?

  1. The old “Wikipedia is unreliable” thing. For starters, WikiTribune isn’t affiliated (though we have the same founder) and we’ll have different systems and processes. And secondly, don’t even try to tell me you don’t use Wikipedia all the time – it’s the 5th biggest site in the world. It clearly has value.
  2. That we won’t make enough money from subscriptions to keep us afloat. And that may be true. It’s worked well so far, but we’ll need to consistently produce things people want to pay for, and that’s on us.
  3. Building the kind of community we want: one where diverse voices are embraced, trolls are barred, and people are both helpful and respectful. Our people have good experience with that, though: I think they’ll nail it.
Pic: WikiTribune

What progress have you made so far?

We started out with a hackathon and a crowdfunding campaign. The campaign hit its target (not a specific figure but a blended average of one-off donations and ongoing subscriptions), which gave us enough runway to hire 10 journalists.

Currently we’ve got five who’ve started – me being the first – and more on the way. We’re still looking for an editor.

We’ve also received $150k in grants, including one from the News Integrity Initiative and one from Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and we’re busy applying for more.

[UPDATE: After this interview WikiTribune announced it had received a further €385,000 – that’s $440k – from Google’s European Digital News Initiative Fund.]

All our content is going to be made available for reuse through Creative Commons, and we’re intending to open source as much as we can, so in theory WikiTribune should be good for the media as a whole – which hopefully means we’re eligible for some grants and funding, to improve the news.

We have a temporary website (with a ridiculously comprehensive FAQ) and a Medium blog where we can update people on what we’re doing. We have about 7,000 email subscribers and a very engaged audience on Facebook and Twitter, who are never shy to tell us what they think. And that’s exactly what we need.

So what’s the timeline going forward?

  • Soft launch (invite-only): within the next month,
  • Big launch: sometime in Q3, if all goes to plan,
  • Hiring an editor: ASAP,
  • Hiring all 10 funded journalists: we’re working on it, but they have to be the right people,
  • Getting through an entire day with no one asking us to edit their Wikipedia entry: may never happen.

And ultimately, what’s the big dream? 

The idea is to make people feel like they’ve read something they wouldn’t see anywhere else: something that’s helpful, interesting and accurate. And, ultimately, that makes them want to subscribe and support independent journalism.

I’d like to see a world where everyone contributes to journalism, whether it’s by taking photos, sharing accurate news, helping to verify, or just acknowledging that good journalism costs money.

Truthful news benefits us all.

WikiTribune is launching later this year, find out more and subscribe to their newsletter here.