The name Jimmy Wales may or may not ring a bell, but you’ve probably heard of his most famous creation—namely Wikipedia, the world’s first “crowdsourced” encyclopedia, which launched in 2001 and now has 40 million articles filled with information on everything imaginable.
This improbable success helps explain why so many journalists and media analysts are excited about Wales’ latest project, an attempt to build a crowd-powered journalism site called Wikitribune, which launched on Monday. Similar efforts in the past, however, have all ended up as noble failures. Can Wales manage to beat the odds a second time?
The way the Wikipedia founder describes the project is as a co-operative that combines the power of the crowd with the skills of professional journalists. The funding, he says, will come from donations, because the ad-supported model has created a “race to the bottom” filled with clickbait and fake news.
Money raised through the site will go to pay the salaries of journalists who work for Wikitribune, Wales said, with the initial goal of hiring 10 reporters. If enough funding isn’t received, any money raised will be returned to those who donated.
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Ideas for stories that need covering will come from the crowd, Wales says, and then professional journalists will report and investigate those ideas, along with input from members or subscribers. Much like volunteer editors do at Wikipedia, these users will ensure that the stories are factual and not biased, and that no important details are omitted.
“The community of contributors will vet the facts, help make sure the language is factual and neutral, and will to the maximum extent possible be transparent about the source of news posting full transcripts, video, and audio of interviews. In this way Wikitribune aims to combat the increasing proliferation of online fake news.”
Skeptics of Wales’ plan note that a number of entrepreneurs and journalists have launched sites and services based on a similar crowd-powered approach to the news over the past several years.
One of the first was Spot.us, which was founded in 2008 by David Cohn with support from the Knight Foundation, and was designed to crowdfund news reporting on major stories. It produced a number of stories with large and small media partners, but never managed to get enough traction to continue. It was eventually sold to American Public Media, and later shut down.
Journalist and former Facebook managing editor Dan Fletcher co-founder a site called Beacon Reader in 2013 that aimed to use a community-funding model to allow journalists to pursue their work. But while it had some individual success stories, it never achieved scale and shut down last year.
A similar fate befell Contributoria, a crowdfunded journalism platform that was founded by Matt McAlister and backed by The Guardian. While it had some success, it failed to grow or become self-financing, and it shut down in 2015.