Matthew Yeomans, a freelance writer, has posted a fascinating story about the birth of Wikinews. The story is more robust than you might expect to see on most blogs. That’s because Matthew originally reported it for The New York Times. But then story was killed.
“Nothing conspiratorial here. I don’t think they thought it was a strong enough story, both in subject matter and execution,” he says.
Fresh from cashing his kill fee, we asked Matthew a few questions about the piece:
Q: What interested you in writing about Wikinews?
I’m fascinated by the potential of citizen journalism, but I’m a true believer in the skills of mainstream media. I saw Wikinews as a great way of showing the incredibly steep learning curve that citizen journalism will need to climb to be taken seriously and to produce work of real journalistic value.
Q: What did you learn from writing this piece?
Umm… not to rely on freelance journalism as a career… Oh, you mean the story itself? That a lot of smart non-journalists have very good theories about what journalism should be but that theory only gets you so far.
Q: What would you do to make Wikinews better?
Make it less collaborative! A successful news site needs a tier of decision makers (editors) who can make the tough decisions about story placement and news coverage… Not to mention making stories read better. Also, I don’t agree with the Neutral Point of View process - it’s kinda sanctimonious and makes the copy read like a technical manual.
Q: Unlike working with a single editor at a newsroom, the Wikinews process is democratic involving negotiation and consensus building. How can that approach improve or worsen a story?
As I mention in the story - consensus building is great for an ongoing project but hardly the timely solution to breaking news. Wikinews would be better suited to a magazine/newsweekly format where it has the time to digest all this info out there and package it for a comprehensive read. That would be a cool citizen service (critics say it already exists and is called Wikipedia).
Q: At one point David Speakman says of citizen journalists, it’s like “watching them discover through trial and error what I already know. It’s like giving birth on Main Street – it’s messy.” Did you observe contributors learning to write or edit better stories? What would make them better citizen journalists?
I followed stories through the edit process on the site. These guys all have very good editorial instincts - ranging from searching for new angles to a story to meticulous line edits of copy (some might say bordering on zealotry). However, the single most important factor in making them better citizen journalists, in my opinion, is that more of them need to get away from their computers and report on the issues in their world that matter to them, rather than weighing in on major stories already covered by the Big Boys. Interestingly, if you ask journalism professors (something I do part-time), they will tell you that they are always pushing their students to stop relying on the Internet for research and to pick up the phone. Actually going out there and interviewing someone is an added bonus!
Q: I watched the writing of a story on the election of the Pope. In the IRC, there was a palpable sense of urgency as a group of strangers tried to write and edit. It actually reminded me of a newsroom atmosphere. What did you observe that was similar or different to your newsroom experience?
In many ways, the Wikinews operation is like a real newsroom - the deadline pressure is similar and the squabbles are similar. However, in the physical newsroom, you can always sort problems out face to face or even better in the bar after work. My sense with Wikinews is that old wounds fester more often than they are healed.