For all the new digital media entities that have popped up over the past few years, the way the news is reported hasn't changed all that much. Breaking news may show up on Twitter or Facebook first, but then an army of bloggers and journalists usually winds up turning it into something that looks more or less like a standard new story, published on sites that often look very much like newspapers.
With Grasswire, founders Levi Notik and Austen Allred wanted to upend that traditional format and create something like a crowdsourced real-time newsroom, a Wikipedia of news.
The latest iteration of that vision launched this morning: a stripped-down, newsfeed-style site with images and text about a variety of breaking news events around the world. In many cases, the news items are tweets, or Instagram photos. But the real magic of the site, Allred says, occurs behind the scenes, in an open forum—powered by the popular workplace discussion tool Slack—that functions as an open newsroom.
"It sort of feels like you're sitting in Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom," said Allred, referring to the TV show from the creator of The West Wing. "What ends up on the site is the outcome of what happens in that newsroom, in that discussion. All the fact-checking and voting and whatnot is done in the Slack channel, so the site itself exists as a nicer-looking version of what happens in the newsroom."
A number of other real-time news efforts have taken a somewhat similar approach: Storyful, which does fact-checking of social news (and is now owned by News Corp.) runs an open newsroom on Google+, but participants have to be invited. And Reportedly, a unit of Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media that focuses on social news, has a team of editors who collaborate via social platforms like Reddit and Twitter. But Grasswire takes that approach a step farther.
Although it's not immediately obvious (apart from a button that says "edit Grasswire" in the upper right corner), the site is wide open for anyone to edit, which means that any registered user can post, change, or remove content. In contrast to almost every news site in the world, no one has to approve it, or verify it, or edit it before it appears. All of that happens after the fact. The closest comparison would be the real-time news that occurs on Reddit forums such as Syrian Civil War, which Allred was partly inspired by.
While that approach creates the risk of error and/or vandalism, any change can be easily "reverted" or changed back by any user, including the site's admins or editors. And those decisions are all made on the fly in the Slack forum's "open newsroom." Admins can also ban or block malicious users, but those are the only special powers they hold compared to regular users, Allred says. The site has seven full-time employees, including two professional journalists.
This second iteration of Grasswire is unlike the original version (which I wrote about here) in several ways. The original site was designed to be more like a Reddit for news rather than Wikipedia: users could fact-check the photos and text reports, with the truth "score" displayed below each piece of content, and they could also vote up images or news items. Both of those features have been removed, and all of that activity now occurs in the Slack room.
I thought the up-voting and fact-checking might have been removed because they were being rigged or targeted by malicious users (something that used to happen to Digg), but Allred says that's not the case. He decided to lose those aspects of the site because they made it too complex, and thus made the barrier to entry too high. It's simpler to make all of that part of the discussion in the open newsroom, he said.
"We discovered the voting and so on was kind of getting in the way of usage—people were spending a lot of time discussing what to vote on, having these discussions in these terrible little comment boxes," Allred says. "We just wanted to make it simpler, so that all happens in the chat room. Basically what happened was I had this big idea of how it would work and how everyone would come together and how people would use the site, and a lot of those assumptions were just wrong."
The Grasswire founder adds that he's is under no illusions about how many users are ever going to edit the site or engage in a discussion around the news in the Slack room. "We assume that 99% of our readers will only ever be readers," he said. "There are about 930 people on the site right now and I would guess maybe 15 of those are people trying to edit. So we're thinking a lot about both of those different experiences and about trying to improve them."
There have only been a few incidents of vandalism on the site so far, Allred says. In one case, a link got posted on the anarchic online community 4chan, and some users came and fiddled with the site, but it was reverted quickly and they were blocked. The lack of bad behavior could be a result of the fact that Grasswire is still relatively unknown, but Allred says he thinks it can manage even if it gets larger.
Allred says the site has evolved from being a Reddit for news to being more like Wikipedia—but in a way, the site is even more ambitious than Wikipedia is. The crowdsourced encyclopedia may theoretically be editable by anyone, but in practice it is more or less run by a small group of editors (known ironically as the "cabal") who make many of the decisions about what to post or what to remove unilaterally. Grasswire is set up so anyone can edit anything in real time, although like Wikipedia, admins can "lock" a page or item to protect it from vandalism.
"I'm a fan of what Wikipedia has done, but one of the things I don't really want to replicate is the sort of secret group of inside brass who kind of control what happens on the site," Allred says. "A lot of people I've talked to say they don't like that part. I'm not sure how to avoid that, but we're trying really hard."
Is it possible for a site to take such an aggressively democratic approach to the news, or will Grasswire succumb to the kind of abuse that has been such a problem for Twitter and Reddit? Allred says he is optimistic, and he'd better be—the dustbin of history is filled with services that over-estimated the public's desire to contribute to the greater good. Grasswire has so far raised $700,000 from a group of VCs and angel investors, but Allred said the company will likely be looking to boost its funding soon.
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