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.
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.
Grasswire was started in 2014 by entrepreneur Austen Allred, and while it didn’t involve crowdfunding, it was designed to be a kind of Reddit-style news community to which anyone could contribute. It still exists, but has never gotten much traction outside a small group.
Some journalists have managed to fund their own individual efforts through crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon, and writers such as Ben Thompson of Stratechery have created standalone businesses that depend on subscriptions from readers rather than advertising revenue.
There’s a big difference between this kind of individual effort and an organization with the kind of scale that Jimmy Wales appears to have in mind for Wikitribune, however, as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab pointed out in a comment to the BBC.
“There’s certainly a model for non-profit news that can be successful if it’s done on a relatively small scale and produces a product that is unique enough,” Benton said. “But I have a hard time seeing this scale up into becoming a massive news organization.”
Part of the problem is that while journalists—and concerned observers like Wales—see the rise of “fake news” as a serious social problem, and are committed to helping find ways to combat it, it’s not clear that non-journalists feel the same kind of impulse. Nor is it clear that even if they do, enough of them will be willing to fund or get involved with such a project.
It’s true that a number of media entities like the New York Times and The Guardian have seen a rush of digital subscriptions since the election of Donald Trump as president, which appears to be driven by a desire for journalism that will address a number of social and political issues.
But can this impulse translate from being just a simple donation to an existing media entity, and become the kind of drive that convinces non-journalists to spend their time suggesting news stories, editing, and fact-checking them—all for little or no reward?
As Thompson pointed out in a comment in his newsletter about Wikitribune, the single biggest argument in favor of Wales being able to achieve this seemingly impossible goal is that he has already effectively done that once with Wikipedia. It, too, was criticized as being a pipe dream, a vision that would never be realized because it seemed so unlikely.
“I don’t know if Wikitribune will work,” said Thompson. “But if it fails, it won’t fail because it lacks scale; if anything, it will fail because it didn’t figure out how to harness the scale that is the Internet. What I am confident in ascertaining is that whatever entity ‘solves’ news will look a lot more like Wikipedia than it does The New York Times.”
The history of such efforts may be littered with failures, which suggests there is reason for skepticism. But none of them had the kind of influence that Wales brings to a project. And like Wikipedia, perhaps his brand of crowdsourced journalism is an idea whose time has come.