A supermarket crowd

Wikipedia and the Power of the Crowd: The Future (or present) of Journalism?

The rapid advance of technology and the boom of the Internet have shown the importance of updating information in real time. News organizations are realizing more and more that people want information as soon as it happens, and that means journalism institutions need to examine what their role will be in this developing digital world.

But as journalism organizations look into the mirror, will they see Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia looking back at them?

In “The Wikipedia Revolution” author Andrew Lih chronicles the rise of the rapidly growing and increasingly influential online, crowd sourced encyclopedia and the affect is has had on a myriad of organizations, people and events. As the lines between journalism, opinion, advocacy and commentary continue to blur online, so too are the lines between what journalism is and what Wikipedia represents: an accounting of our world, and the best attempts to make sense of events, people and places.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, listed the qualities of the Wikipedia community, and that “We’re actually talking about very old-fashioned types of references. Good writing. Neutrality. Reliable sources. Verifiability (XVII).” The list might explain what they look for in that specific community, but it could easily be the basic elements of journalism. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, some of the nine basic elements of journalism include verification, independence from those they cover and the truth.

What is the truth? Well according to Pew, it is that “journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information.” The truth in both journalism and Wikipedia are remarkably similar, a point that is becoming all too clear in the age of the Internet.

But it’s the real-time nature of the Internet that is causing Wikipedia and journalism to converge. Lih makes the comparison himself early on in his book. He says that “As fast as the news happens, like worker bees in a honeycomb, Wikipedians file, edit, and organize up-to-the-second dispatches into the websites articles (7).” Lih wrote that this fills a traditional “knowledge gap” created by the lag time between the publication of a newspaper and a history book.

But that is not entirely true, as the publication of a physical newspaper is becoming more outdated, and the information contained within might not reflect the eight or 12 hours since its creation. The Associated Press already sees Wikipedia as a major competitor, and in internal documents posted on the Neiman Journalism Lab and pointed to by Steve Myers at Poynter, it clearly lays out the prominent role Wikipedia plays in breaking news.

From the memo:

Now the news may be shared before it’s even searched. And, what’s more, in cases where famous people, places, and things are involved you will undoubtedly find Wikipedia in the mix, with its battery of standing pages that are updated continuously and built to send people where they are looking to go.

In response, the Associated Press proposes the idea of news “landing pages” that would contain the accumulated AP information grouped by topic or by person. In a follow-up interview with Jimmy Wales, Poynter Online contributor Steve Meyers asks about the intersection of news and Wikipedia, and why people use the encyclopedia as a breaking news source.

Wales places the blame firmly on journalism institutions, saying that “The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information.” But he also cautions against certain comparisons, noting that Wikipedians do not do original reporting, but instead reference other sources, and that sometimes the community holds off editing an article until it’s confirmed by several reputable sources. The lines may be blurred between journalism and Wikipedia, but there are clear differences.

But for how long?

One of the greatest strengths of Wikipedia is its community of dedicated writers and editors, people who volunteer time and effort to get the facts straight, police the content and provide manpower to fill the incredibly large void of information. As journalism institutions grapple with their role, many are turning to the same concept, dubbed “citizen journalism,” to help provide coverage in a world where the few journalists there are cannot provide all the information people may want.

CNN has an “I report” section of their site, and organizations such as Voice of San Diego and The Huffington Post both provide tools and accept contributions from “regular” citizens throughout the course of their news coverage.

The lynchpin of this kind of journalism, and the writing of Wikipedia, lies on the “curators.” These are the people that help direct the flow of information, and provide useful outlets as well as policing actions to help weed out content that might be a problem. News websites already use their own readers to help police comments by flagging or rating them, and as citizen journalism becomes more common, paid staff members of these organizations become part community organizers.

Their role goes from telling people what they need to know to engaging them and directing their energies to something productive. The models of Wikipedia and journalism organizations begin to look more similar than they are different.

Wikipedia has shown that crowd sourced content done correctly can have a lasting and far-reaching impact. Its dominance in Internet search results and its increasing use by people from all over the world show the hunger for information.

Its curated content provided by a collection of citizens was a business model that seems prescient in today’s world of citizen-produced content and the increasingly crowd-sourced journalism. As Lih has suggested, the journalism industry and Wikipedia intersect in many ways, but as people’s relationship to the news changes, it may be the journalism industry that undergoes its own Wikipedia revolution.