Most news organizations, both online-only and traditional media with web sites, are keenly scanning the technological horizon for the latest trends to incorporate into their sites. As noted yesterday, Twittering is now in the news site toolkit, joining a host of features adopted earlier—including discussion boards, commenting, video and audio clips, blogs, personalized home pages, RSS feeds and site search, along with all manner of ad presentation techniques from pop-ups to contextual ads to Flash.
So, why haven’t newsrooms noticed Wikipedia? And why haven’t they considered what might be done in newsrooms with the freely-available, open source, MediaWiki software that drives Wikipedia and many other wiki sites?
Here’s how a reporter approaches a story at a local paper. She gathers information about what’s happening by going to the event, covering the meeting, and/or interviewing some sources. Then, back at the desk, she usually rummages through a bunch of files and notes, ransacks the morgue where clip files are kept, and/or searches through whatever electronic archive system the paper may possess, in order to add background to the story. This is important because most stories are part of a larger, ongoing local issue that may have years of background readers need to be continually reminded of, and even a fire or murder can benefit from some background on the building or the victim culled from the newspaper’s records.
The thing is, this process must be repeated whenever there’s a new development, and especially when there’s a new reporter on the beat, which is frequently, these days. Similarly, readers interested in researching an issue need to delve into the paper’s archives online or at the public library and potentially go through many stories to get the picture. Wouldn’t it make sense to build all of the back story into a wiki on the topic, and to make it the responsibility of the reporter to update the wiki whenever something new happens? And once the wiki is created, why not make it available online, linked in the printed and online versions of the story, so a reader can get a summary of all the background the paper possesses, not just whatever the reporter considers relevant to the current story.
And then, dare I suggest, why not allow readers to edit the wiki as well, with the reporter who “owns” the issue keeping an eye on it to prevent abuse? It works at Wikipedia itself, why would it not work at a local newspaper wiki?
Once established, readers could add new topics, including pages on the history and amenities of the area, on elected and appointed local officials and legislators, on businesses and non-profit organizations, on schools and churches, on clubs, bands, rivers, mountains, parks and what-have-you. Every new news story might come with a series of wiki references to allow readers to explore the backgrounds of not only the issues but also the personalities, buildings and organizations involved.
If anyone is doing something even remotely like this, I’d like to know. I’m aware only of one stab taken toward this in Brattleboro, VT, where a “Brattleboro Community Brain Trust” in wiki format is slowly accumulating content. Very slowly. It’s mostly historical stuff and it’s not updated with current events. The latest news on it seems to be Brattleboro’s resolution against a war with Iran, passed in March 2008, which is published without background or other context. The site’s timeline for Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant that’s the hottest issue in town, ends in 2007, even though there have been almost daily developments this year in the plant’s effort to be relicensed for another 20 years of operation.
Elsewhere, Wikispot is trying to foment the creation of local wikis, not in association with news media (have they tried, though?). The most successful of these appears to be in Davis, CA. You’ll find a lot of information about Davis there, but the most recent news on it is dated June 23, 2008. And it features no effort to wikify issues rather than individual news events.
Keith Buchanan, a McClatchy staffer, posted a brief thought this summer about newspaper-sponsored local wikis on the McClatchy blog, but the idea seems to have landed with a very soft thud there. Wikipedia itself has a page on local wikis around the world, which demonstrates that not many of them have gained any traction, and none of them are sponsored by a news organization. The definition there of “city wiki” does not even include the idea of using the wiki to track ongoing issues and other news stories.
It’s often said that newspapers are the first draft of history. (Today, Twitter is, but that was yesterday’s news.) With wiki technology, newspapers can write the next draft, and continue to update and refine it, assisted by their readers. And it can help them “monetize” the Web, by getting more mileage out of the content they create, attracting more site users, generating more page views, and selling more ad exposures.