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Why I love English Wikinews

by Pi zero

I love Wikinews because it stands for ideals I deeply believe in; because it has a community of others who share those ideals; and because I can enjoy deeply satisfying collaborations with others in the community promoting those ideals.

Which glaringly begs the question, what are those ideals and what makes them so important? Fair warning: much of this is going to sound awfully high-flown. That's only reasonable. Volunteer projects thrive on idealism, which motivates passionate volunteerism. (Even Assume Good Faith, whose long-term corrosive effects on the Wikipedian community I abhor, does have this virtue, that it's wonderfully idealistic; but I digress.)

There is a titanic struggle going on for control of the ideosphere —including journalism and the wikimedian movement— between two mindsets I'll call fact-based and opinion-based. The fact-based mindset admits the existence of an objective reality, whose study should be unbiased by opinion because it is the proper foundation on which to construct opinion. The opinion-based mindset un-self-consciously lacks the concept of an objective reality, and treats facts as tools to be manipulated or invented to promote one's agenda.

Before Wikipedia, information on the internet could readily be dominated by proprietary information providers pushing their own agendas. Wikipedia checked that trend, by creating a forum in which it is more difficult for any one agenda to dominate over all others. However, in the struggle between fact-based and opinion-based mindsets, Wikipedia is largely neutral. It seeks to present views "proportionately", which is apt to average agendas rather than banishing them, and, likely more important over time, along the way its long-term approach to consensus encourages contributors to think of neutrality as something that can't be achieved by a single individual. Some of this may be room for structural improvement in Wikiepdia; but also some of it is probably intrinsic in Wikipedia's function.

News is different, though. The difference between hearsay and news is that the journalist has a rightly earned reputation for making sure they're reporting objective fact before they publish. The marvelously successful Wikipedian strategy of publishing what you think is probably right, in the expectation that someone will eventually fix it if it's wrong, simply doesn't work for news. You need contributors with journalistic ideals, and at some stage of advancement you'll need peer review (a complex issue depending on project circumstances; but again I digress).

So while Wikipedia fights valiantly to prevent any one agenda from overwhelming all the others, Wikinews stands squarely for fact-based reality against opinion-based agendas. It's not a coincidence that the most rabid opponents of Wikinews consistently apply non-fact-based tactics to their cause.

Standing as Wikinews does at the intersection of news sites and open wikis, it represents a unique opportunity both to draw on the best of both worlds, and to benefit both worlds.

Mainstream journalism today is in crisis. The old economic model and infrastructure are crumbling, and journalism with loss of quality control is suffering from incursions of opinion-based agendas, both economic and ideological. Wikinews is free from the pressures of advertising and can bring open-wiki techniques to bear on neutrality, providing not only a counterbalance and check on the mainstream, but —recalling again the power of idealism— a reminder of what the mainstream can aspire to. Wikinews is already being used as a training ground for journalism students. As Wikinews hones its techniques, some of those techniques may also be usefully adapted for other news sites.

The wikimedian movement is undergoing its own stresses. Social challenges aside, I believe a key need is expertise management: the ability to identify expert contributors; collect their expertise; and then make it available, both to make expert tasks easier for newcomers and experts alike, and to pass the expertise on. Community dynamics, article workflow, and software tools all play their parts. And Wikinews, by confronting the expertise-management problem in a highly virulent form, can I believe develop technologies for these things that should be valuable, suitably adapted, for other wikimedian sisters, including Wikipedia.

I'll close with some comment on the collegial social atmosphere of English Wikinews, which is both a phenomenon that would be worth exporting to other sisters if one could figure out how, and also ties back in to my remark on deeply satisfying collaborations. At one level, the collegiality comes from the shared journalistic ideals of the community, within which an endless variety of news stories can be told yet all sharing these lucid underlying principles. There seems no way, on the face of it, to translate this principle to Wikipedia because Wikipedia in its current form is simply too broad to enjoy such a focus (a real disadvantage of Wikipedia compared to most of its sisters which have more narrowly defined missions). However —and this I admit I find rather fascinating— the clear focus of the English Wikinews community is honed by the structure of our article workflow. An article can only be published through a close collaboration between writer and reviewer. Simply put (one could go into great detail, but the basic concept is simple), the only way to succeed sustainably in publishing on English Wikinews is to be a team player. Yes, English Wikinewsies have egos too (surprise!); it's just that we're also team players, or we wouldn't be here.

So with each English Wikinews publication I collaborate in, I'm part of a team win, we're giving the world another news article, and we're promoting the ideals of journalism — including the idea, subversive to the opinion-based mindset, that fact-based people can ground themselves in objective reality, insulating their news writing from their own often-strong opinions. I love it.