User:Eloquence/State of the Wiki: December 12, 2004

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State of the Wiki
These are Erik Möller's semi-regular summaries of the state of the Wikinews project. Please feel free to edit the articles for spelling, style and clarity.
Editions so far: December 12, 2004 - February 26, 2005 - April 28, 2005.

It's been an exciting first month for the Wikinews project. Let me briefly recap the history. I formally requested the creation of Wikinews as a project of the Wikimedia Foundation on October 10, 2004. [1] By that time, I had the domain name under my control (which had been a bit of an issue), and had completely reworked the proposal on Meta-Wiki, the coordination wiki used by all Wikimedia projects.

Based on a long discussion on the foundation-l mailing list, I removed some of the more controversial bits of my initial proposal (editorials, an accreditation scheme for reporters). We also agreed that we could not just launch the project without asking for community approval. This was a historic first for the Foundation: Projects like Wiktionary and Wikiquote had just been created on an ad hoc basis when people had expressed interest in working on them. This approach was no longer workable for an organization with thousands of volunteer contributors from around the world, which had taken in more than $100,000 in donations already. What was needed was a vote.

I had organized votes before, such as the shockingly huge Wikipedia logo contest, so I proceeded to create a voting page on Meta for the purpose and announced the vote on October 22, 2004. The vote was open until November 12, 2004.

Voting went fairly well, though there were language pages where there was significant opposition to the project. The Chinese community in particular was worried that a Wikinews project might further endanger the existing Chinese Wikimedia content in terms of government censorship. Some prominent Wikimedians, including Anthere, an elected member of the Board of Trustees, opposed the project. Blog-celebrities like Joi Ito and Dan Gillmor expressed significant skepticism. [2], [3] Many worried that Wikinews would hurt Wikimedia's reputation, not be able to live up to its mission, and waste resources.

Still, shortly before the vote was closed, a demo site was set up at to demonstrate the feasibility of the project to the Foundation Board, which would make the final call on its creation, in light of the outcome of the vote but not bound by it. In spite of the objections, a large majority of the community voted in favor, including the other two active Wikimedia board members, Angela and Jimbo Wales.

At this point, I started setting up the basic structure of the website as I envisioned it, with region pages like North America and topical pages like Politics and conflicts. I also formulated a proposal for a review process which, in its current form, resides at Wikinews:Article stages. Some initial decisions had to be made: Should articles be in a separate namespace before they are "published"? Should datelines be part of article titles?

I tried to keep things simple. The most complex aspect of the site in its early stage was the review process. I created a Template:Review outline which was supposed to be the framework in which review discussions would take place. The first version of the template still required consensus in all the different categories: neutrality, accuracy, legality, policy compliance, and comprehensiveness.

The first article that properly passed through review was, as I recall it, President of China lunches with Brazilian President. It seemed like a good start. Nothing spectacular, but also not the kind of thing you would find on the CNN frontpage - a story written based on the interests of the primary contributor. Soon many other people started contributing, people I admire for the time they spent on this project so far, and who deserve most of the credit for what Wikinews is today and where it is going.

Things worked reasonably well with the intial community, but the site did not grow as fast as it could have. Soon we would have to face an essential question: Do we want to make it easy to get stories published? Or do we want to enforce quality control before we make stories visible to the general readership? On November 23, 2004, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales made some edits in favor of the first option. He argued that the site needed to be in a state of creative chaos, especially in its early stage, in order for people to be comfortable working on it, and for the processes to evolve naturally, through the wiki model.

I mostly agreed with Jimmy's concerns, and had already tagged policies with Template:Proposed policy to encourage users to edit and improve them as they see fit. My only point of disagreement is that I prefer to work on the basis of what is there, rather than creating too many separate processes and inviting people to do whatever they want. My approach is not without problems -- if the initial authors of the suggested policies are uncooperative, they can try to block any substantial changes. I have, however, always been open to radically rethinking the way we do things around here.

In the coming days, I and others made a few changes to simplify the procedures. The structured review outline was removed, and instead, users were encouraged to simply voice any objections to articles in review on the discussion page. The rules of review were relaxed so that even an article which did not receive any comments during the review stage could pass through it. Eventually, the review process was made optional altogether.

The project was approved by the Board of Trustees and officially launched on December 3, 2004 in English and German. New editions can be requested on m:Wikinews/Start a new edition and will be set up according to user interest. The initial media attention was quite intense (partially through my own doing with this Slashdot story and this lengthy Kuro5hin piece) and has put all our deficiencies in the spotlight. We are not afforded a period of quiet build-up as Wikipedia was in its early days. We should be prepared for heavy criticism, and not be discouraged by it.

The article guidelines right now are very simple. You can write about everything: edit Template:Editor tasks and get going. As long as you consider your article to be unfinished, you should not yet add it to the index pages, but instead tag it with {{development}}. If you feel your article is very good, you can submit it for community review by adding {{review|~~~~}} at the bottom -- but this is optional. See Wikinews:Article stages for other, optional, tags.

The current tagging system is a kind of accelerated process similar to Wikipedia:Featured article candidates, though the criteria are more formal and less targeted towards brilliance. This seems like a reasonable compromise to me: We still encourage our contributors to engage in quality control, but we do not require it, allowing for more rapid growth, while clearly informing our readers about the state an article is in. I think that a formal Wikipedia peer review process will work similarly to that.

There are lots of open questions with regard to article development, particularly when we want to consider an article "stable" or even freeze it. On this issue, too, I am open to all possibilities. We might want to opt for a system where changes are always possible, but where we have better tools for patrolling them. For instance, a change to an article that is weeks old might be especially highlighted on Special:Recentchanges, so that other editors can bring it in compliance with a policy. The article body could provide more intuitive links to view the differences between recent article revisions.

We have had no experiences with original reporting so far. We should take some careful first steps in this area soon. I still believe that we will want to build a system where Wikinews regulars can accumulate a real-world reputation that they can use to be accredited as journalists by organizations, companies, goverments, and so forth. That is essential for us to become competitive with other news media.

The main difficulty I see with our current model is the necessity to manually update index pages like the Main Page. Information like the date of publication or the review state, if it is desired, has to be manually entered. The more index pages there are, the more difficult this process becomes. At some point, the whole site ceases to be scalable.

I believe that Wikinews will lead us forward on the path of convergence between blogs and wikis, something I have described in some detail in my book. The way to handle the indexing issue, I think, is to make it possible to display newsfeeds of articles in particular categories, sorted by their creation date: essentially a category filter on Special:Newpages. Multiple such feeds should be insertable like templates on any page. They could include information beyond the title and date, such as the first paragraph of text from the article or the review status. They could be made available as RSS feeds, one of the most requested features (you can use the feed for Special:Newpages for now).

I think the maintenance of multiple index pages only truly becomes feasible with this functionality, and that until then, we should stick to keeping our Main Page nice and current.

Right now, many articles are in review and stay there. That is not necessarily a problem if we consider the review process to be essentially timeless, make the tags slightly less obnoxious by putting them at the bottom, etc. We will, however, probably want to invite more contributors to participate in the review, and cultivate a strong belief in quality control and journalistic ethics. As always, software changes can facilitate this -- see Wikiflow for some of my ideas on the matter -- but I don't think that should be our highest priority at the present time.

Is Wikinews already a competitive news source? Hardly, but that would have been quite a feat with less than 10 days of official operations. Our software has not been made for indexing news stories, and that is increasingly a visible problem. I'm a semi-active contributor to the MediaWiki codebase, but how much I can do to help Wikinews along will depend on what else I'm doing at the time, including the need to pay the rent. If you are firm in PHP and MySQL, please help us out in making the software more suitable for what we're doing.

Our processes are still very basic and rough, and will need lots of refinement over time. More Wikinews language editions will help us to gather data about what works and what doesn't.

The big question is, of course, whether volunteers can create a competitive news source. Looking at the thousands of bloggers who are doing a large part of what we're doing, but separately and without consistent standards of quality control, I do think it's possible. We need to get those people involved, we need to make it super-easy for anyone to contribute stories, we need to make quality control a rewarding and easy to understand process, and we need to keep the site maintainable, interesting and fun. I consider Wikinews in many ways a bigger challenge than Wikipedia, but it is a challenge that I am willing to face with you all.

I have a very simple philosophy that I think every child should be taught as soon as possible. It's that mistakes are a good thing, not a bad thing, if we learn from them, and change our actions accordingly. I invite you to find new and exciting mistakes for us to make and learn from. We have a chance to create something unique and important, but it will require passion, dedication, and a willingness to question everything.

Erik Möller

Berlin, December 12, 2004