Wiki journalism: If it works, use it

Paul Bradshaw, a British journalist and educator who blogs at Online Journalism, has spent a good amount of time and effort on a fine analysis of “wiki journalism.”

Not all wikis are journalism — of course! — but wikis can be used to produce journalism. Witness the recent example of Wikipedia during the Virginia Tech shootings:

Imagine a newspaper with more than 2,000 writers, researchers and copy editors, yet no supervisors or managers to speak of. No deadlines; no meetings to plan coverage; no decisions handed down through a chain of command; no getting up on a desk to lead a toast after a job well done.

It doesn’t sound like any news operation that any journalist would recognize. Yet that seemingly chaotic nonstructure best describes the scene at Wikipedia … From the contributions of 2,074 editors, at last count, the site created a polished, detailed article on the massacre, with more than 140 separate footnotes, as well as sidebars that profiled the shooter … and gave a timeline of the attacks. ( “Link by Link: The Latest on Virginia Tech, From Wikipedia,” by Noam Cohen, The New York Times, April 23, 2007)

Today that page at Wikipedia looks like any other entry there. But have a look at the archived page from just before 5 p.m. (16:56 EDT) on April 16, 2007. Then compare that with a page from 2 hours later (18:52 EDT).

A wiki can also be used as a tool that contributes to journalism:

Within news organizations, a password-protected wiki might be valuable for editors and reporters as a workspace for their story in progress. At the least, an internal wiki might help as a small repository of shared knowledge. Your story budget could be a wiki. Your staff covering sports might start a wiki of all their sources, and how good they are.

The BBC is already using wikis internally to help streamline their work …

… the rise of participatory journalism might lead to wikis that allow journalists to collaborate with sources and readers. ( “Collaborative Conundrum: Do Wikis Have a Place in the Newsroom?” by Mark Glaser, Online Journalism Review, Sept. 10, 2004)

Years ago, when I worked on the Metro copy desk at The Washington Post, we had one of those ancient computer systems with dotty green text on a black screen. The system was never meant to act as a hypertext, a wiki, or anything else but a publishing system feeding into a gigantic commercial printing press — but that didn’t stop a bunch of copy editors from bending technology to serve their own ends.

We had a set of private electronic pages in the system — not writable by reporters, and never meant for printing — where we kept up-to-date lists of all government officials in the numerous counties we covered in Metro. The system relied on honor and the careful practices of trained copy editors. Any copy editor could change anything in the lists. Your obligation was to change it as you edited an election results story. If you got the story about elections in Loudoun County, Virginia, then it was your responsibility to fact-check all the names and enter them into the Loudoun County list page (deleting the names of people who no longer held those offices).

The result was that the whole Metro desk — reporters and assigning editors, as well as the copy desk — had a reliable source for names, spelling, offices and posts for every elected official in something like 12 counties (I forget the exact number). We might have had phone numbers in there too.

You could use a wiki for that. Why wouldn’t you?

Wikis can be restricted to internal use only. Editing of a wiki (and even selected pages of a wiki) can be restricted to particular users.

You (or your IT staff) can download and install a free wiki system such as MediaWiki, TikiWiki or DokuWiki. You can also play with a free hosted wiki at WetPaint.

Last year I assigned a class to write and edit a long-term reporting assignment using a WetPaint wiki.

2 Comments on “Wiki journalism: If it works, use it

  1. Another option for free, hosted wikis: http://pbwiki.com/

    A couple of our editors here have used PBwiki and love the ease of use. We haven’t used it for anything like you’re suggesting (yet), but do have a few reference lists scattered through our editorial system. It’d be nice to have it all in one big wiki.

  2. Pingback: links for 2007-09-13 | SOJo: Student of Online Journalism

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