LONDON — It was Kellyanne Conway who convinced Jimmy Wales to create a media company.
On Tuesday, the Wikipedia cofounder announced Wikitribune, a new community-powered news outlet that aims to combat fake news and mistrust of the media — and he says it was remarks by the controversial Trump advisor who inadvertently pushed him to do so.
“I’ve been thinking about this for quite a long time, I’ve been working on ideas and so forth, it was always a backburner project,” he told Business Insider in a telephone interview on Monday.
“But there was a moment: A friend had persuaded me that we should all give Donald Trump 100 days, we should just assume the best and hope he would do well, and be supportive on the presidency in general.
“And then on day one, Kellyanne Conway came out and said ‘alternative facts,’ and I was like ‘that’s it, game over, I’m done, I can’t put up with this.’ So that’s when I really started pushing forward, to say this really needs to happen — I need, for my personal feeling of values in the world, I need to be involved in trying to help with this problem.”
Wikitribune will work as a kind of hybrid between a traditional news organisation and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Professional journalists will work alongside community volunteers to write and edit stories, “working side-by-side as equals,” Wales said.
The 50-year-old internet entrepreneur will, at least at first, serve as CEO and in an editor-in-chief-esque role managing the site’s output.
The organisation is currently running a 30-day crowdfunding campaign to raise money to hire and pay journalists, with the website launching once the campaign concludes. It hopes to hire 10 journalists to begin with — but to expand beyond that as soon as it is able.
Generating revenue is a notoriously tricky problem for media organisations, who see organisations like Google and Facebook gobble up advertising revenue while news consumers grow accustomed to free access to news. Wikitribune won’t attempt to buck this trend by charging a compulsory membership fee — instead it will ask readers if they’re willing to pay a voluntary subscription or make a donation to fund its operations, in a similar vein to Wikipedia.
Wales said Wikitribune will focus on news stories with impact over viral pieces: “You can’t beat them at your own game, you’ve got to do something different and interesting.” This kind of citizen-augmented journalism will prove valuable in stories like data breaches, he said, when large numbers of eyeballs are needed to “go through really tedious stuff” to find the newsworthy information hidden inside.
There has been debate in liberal circles about “fake news” for months amid historically low levels of trust in the mainstream media. Some have even suggested that fake news stories circulating on platforms like Facebook helped Donald Trump win his shock victory in the US presidential election.
But “citizen journalism” and community-driven investigations can have problems with reliability too — perhaps most notoriously when would-be sleuths on Reddit accused the wrong man of being behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
“Reddit has some amazing fantastic communities, it has some horrible places, it’s a big noisy place, but it isn’t really designed for — and it doesn’t really aim at — doing fact-checked journalism and publishing stories,” Wales said.
“In that particular case I actually felt like Reddit as a whole got treated a bit unfairly, like, a handful of people on a messageboard started claiming that ‘hey, we think this guy did it.’ Well, that’s the internet for you, it’s broad, wide open.”
He added: “For us, it’s a matter of: If you were going to publish a story you would really want to have that fact-checked, approved, and so forth … the difference is you’ve got to set firm social norms and rules up front about what it is we’re trying to accomplish.”