Citizen journalism/The Los Angeles Times Wikitorial

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In mid-June 2005 the Los Angeles Times announced that it would launch a wikitorial which would allow online users to edit an editorial posted to a wiki. "Watch next week for the introduction of "wikitorials" — an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials," the initial announcement stated. [1]

In an interview with the New York Times, the then L.A. Times editorial page editor, Andrés Martinez, said the purpose of the 'wikitorial' was "all about finding new ways to allow readers to interact with us in the age of the Web." [2]

Michael Kinsley, the then L.A. Times editorial and opinion page editor, told the New York Times that "it may be a complete mess but it's going to be interesting to try. Wikitorials may be one of those things that within six months will be standard. It's the ultimate in reader participation." [3]

Initial reaction

Amongst bloggers and journalists, the reaction to the proposed wikitorial was mixed. Responding to a post by Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly on the topic most contributors were sceptical that a wiki could be adapted in this way. "As a way of producing actual content--which is what wikis are normally used for--this is crap, since the wiki system pretty much breaks down on controversial subjects with strong, irreconciliable positions. But as a way of attracting passionate debaters to their website, I think it's great," wrote Dan Glick. [4]

Others warned that it would be a "free-for-all" or that the editorials would be "hijacked by ideologues" or - if it survived - colonised by "astroturfers."

Some saw the motives as purely commercial: "Newspaper subscriptions are plummeting as more and more people get their news from the Net. This is an attempt to bring people back to the rags. Don't think it will work, but it's worth a try." [5]

"This appears to be yet another pathetic effort by a newspaper to attract the desireable demographic to its product.The idea of publishing interesting and valuable information seems never to get on the agenda," wrote another.

Where Wikipedia seeks to be neutral in its treatment of topics, many contributors doubted that a wiki could be successfully adapted to an opinion piece. "But how do you edit an opinion piece? Is the goal to make the argument stronger? What if you disagree with the general premise? Will articles go from "Gun Control: A Total Waste of Resources" to "Gun Control: A Complicated Issue With Many Differing Points Of View"? It's not that editorials should be factually incorrect (regardless of what Okrent thinks), but an editorial should make a strong argument. Wiki-ing it would probably only work if all the editors agreed with the central theme of the piece," they wrote.

"It seems like interactivity just for the sake of interactivity," wrote another.

Ernest Miller, a blogger on Corante, wondered whether the initial wikitorial would be split to overcome the inevitable diveragence of contributors opinions. "Perhaps they'll have forking? One (or two?) base editorials, point/counterpoint style? One base editorial, many forks? Not exactly a wiki then, really," he wrote. [6]

To Miller Andres Martinez's suggestion in the New York Times that the wikitorial would allow readers to edit it to "your satisfaction" indicated that the L.A. Times didn't really understand how wikis worked. "Hmmm... I'm not sure they get it. When you edit a Wiki you're not really editing it to your satisfaction, you're editing it to the satisfaction of everyone who reads the Wiki subsequently. Cuz if you don't, they'll edit it to their satisfaction, " he noted. [7]

At Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles was more optimistic about the possibility that a wiki could work with mainstream news outlets. "Despite the protests, what The Times has proposed is not all that radical a change. On a limited scale, newspaper editorial writing shares much in common with wikis. Both are collective efforts, reflecting the view of a group of writers, rather than that of an individual. And both strive to report an enduring truth that rises encompasses more than just a single point of view," he wrote the day before the wikitorial went live. [8]

Or he suggested other possibilities beyond the Wikipedia model such as restricitng editing privelegs to those who provide a valid e-mail address as one step in a registration process. Or "a news publisher could limit write access on the wiki to an invited group of readers with first-hand experience on a topic. Or, a publisher could adopt an "open source journalism" model, opening a wiki to revision for a limited time, with an editor stitching together the best evidence and arguments from its versions for later print publication."[9]

"What news publishers need is a tool that will allow any interested readers a seat at the table, with the ability to help direct what ought to be their community's most powerful voice. Something like, oh, say, a wiki," he concluded.

Unveiling the wikitorial

The L.A. Times posted its first 'wikitorial', War and Consequences on the invasion of Iraq and its consequences, on Friday June 17, 2005. [10] Below that editorial they wrote an invitation to their readers to rewrite the editorial in the wiki fashion.

"How do you like the linked editorial? A lot? Thanks! Not so much? Do you see fatuous reasoning, a selective reading of the facts, a lack of poetry? Well, what are you going to do about it? You could send us an e-mail (or even write us a letter, if you can find a stamp). But today you have a new option: Rewrite the editorial yourself, using a Web page known as a "wiki," at," the explanatory invitation to readers stated. [11]

"It sounds nutty. But the best-known example works bewilderingly well," the L.A. Times wrote citing Wikipedia as an example of a wiki that worked.

At the outset it acknowledged the potential pitfalls of making an editorial the focus of their wiki: "To be sure, encyclopedias and newspaper editorials are very different literary forms. Contributors to Wikipedia share in some general way a commitment to accuracy. By contrast, strong disagreement is built into the concept of an editorial. Plenty of skeptics are predicting embarrassment; like an arthritic old lady who takes to the dance floor, they say, the Los Angeles Times is more likely to break a hip than to be hip. We acknowledge that possibility." [12]

They called their experiment a "public beta" and suggested that it may be a failure or a new form of opinion journalism: "We're calling this a "public beta," which is a fancy way of saying we're making something available even though we haven't completely figured it out. A better term might be "experiment." We begin with just one wikitorial. Maybe a year from now a link for "wiki this page" will be as common on the Web as "printer-friendly" or "e-mail this article." Or maybe not. ... Who knows where this will lead? It may lead straight into the dumpster of embarrassing failures."

"Or it may lead to a new form of opinion journalism, reflecting the opinions of everyone who chooses to participate," it more optimistically concluded.

The experiment begins ... and ends

In its first wikitorial, "War and Consequences", in just over a thousand words the L.A. Times argued the need for the Bush administration to outline a plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "U.S. involvement in Iraq, at such great cost in American lives and dollars, cannot remain as ill-defined and open-ended as it is now. The administration must set explicit benchmarks to determine when U.S. forces can leave. Bush should be honest with the American people and the Iraqis. That requires setting realistic goals and holding people responsible for them," it concluded. [13]

Two days after its launch, the L.A. Times wikitorial experiment ended in response to sustained vandal attacks posting pornographic images.

The link to the wiki now leads to the message: "Where is the wikitorial?: Unfortunately, we have had to remove this feature, at least temporarily, because a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material. Thanks and apologies to the thousands of people who logged on in the right spirit." [14]

What went wrong?

Some bloggers viewed the closure of the site as vindication of their skepticism that a wiki could be successfully grafted on to an opinion column, especially one on the war in Iraq. "Even before this, it seemed to me that instead of functioning like a true wiki, where facts get refined, the test case had deteriorated into a wholly predictable, no-win argument over the war," L.A. Observed wrote. [15]

Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review argued that some technical changes to the wiki would have substantially reduced the problems encountered. He argued against allowing users to post material anonymously and for a registration system requiring email or credit card verification.

"Coordinating with the paper's registration system would have allowed the paper at least to boot offending readers from the entire website. If a registration system includes a credit card verification, the paper could take legal action against the offenders," he suggested. Alternatively he proposed that contributors be limited to one edit: "Make your statement, then move on." [16]

At CJR Daily, an online project of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brian Montopoli adopted a more traditionalist argument that a wiki was incompatible with journalism. While acknowledging a lack of familiarity with wikis, Montopoli was scornful of the concept from the outset. "Best we could tell, the Times would write an editorial and post it online, and then anyone who wanted to was invited to take a crack at their own edit, no matter what their relative level of insight, their political leanings, their proclivity for profanity -- or their mental health.That couldn't be it, we figured. Could it?," he wrote. [[17]

"Editorial writers have the benefit of their familiarity with a topic, an editing process to save them from themselves, and, ideally, a facility with language that got them their position in the first place. It makes little sense to cede all of those advantages to whoever wanders in and decides to put her two cents in," he wrote.

While disdainful about he considered the L.A. Times "extreme" version of inclusiveness, he suggested reviving the wiki but in a way that left professional staff in control. "A modified version of the Wikitorial might work -- one in which, say, writers submit suggested changes to a central editor, who incorporates the good stuff and leaves out the bong references. The end result would be far superior to the present system, with its reliance on whichever underqualified or up-to-no-good cook was last in the kitchen," he wrote.

A more considered analysis of what happened with the wikitorial project came from Ilya Haykinson, who had experience with both Wikipedia and the Wikitorial. He pointed out that the wikitorial lacked some of the co-ordination and monitoring features developed at Wikipedia.

When he first visited the site he noted the Wikipedia founder, Jimbo Wales was online trying to fix some of the emerging problems: "Between the two of us, we then moved some pages around, introduced some navigation, created a bit of space for collaboration, left instructions for newbies, and kept an eye on vandalism and reverted it. A few other MediaWiki-savvy folks dropped in over the course of the day to tidy things up." [18]

"Where were the site’s administrators? Probably watching what was happening. After Jimbo and I stopped minding Recent Changes, the admins banned a user or two, and reverted some changes. And eventually had to go to sleep—which probably quickly resulted in vandals changing the site enough that the only way they knew to cope with it was to close the wiki," he wrote. [19]

While the L.A. Times people running the project contacted the two, Haykinson concluded "they simply didn’t yet know how to properly run a wiki. The terms of service were horrendous, the community-building was nearly non-existent. Even vandal-fighting tools like Recent Changes were not easily available."

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External links

Part of this article is based on material derived from the Wikipedia article on the Wikitorial.