New models for quality journalism from Wikitribune to crypto tokens


Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales
is embarking on a new online venture that the rest of us can
only hope succeeds: Creating a new business model for quality
journalism.

To counter the flood of digital fake news, Wales, whose
founding of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia stands as one of
the shining successes of the Internet era,
has announced plans
for a for-profit, crowdfunded news
website offering stories by journalists and volunteers working
together.

The free Wikitribune, as it’s being
called, will contain no advertisements. It will be fully funded
by readers who choose whether or not to donate to the website,
according to a recent announcement by Wales.

Scoff all you want at Wales’ idea. It sounds idealistic. It
looks idealistic. It is idealistic.

But other idealistic crowdsourced projects — most notably the
16-year-old Wikipedia itself and the entire open source
software movement that profoundly changed the software world —
have worked in the past.

Still, after years of studying crowdfunding – from reward-based
platforms like Kickstarter and equity ones like AngelList, to
today’s experiments in the blockchain space (i.e. Bitcoin,
Ethereum and other crypto tokens) — I reluctantly have to say
this: With Wikitribune, Jimmy Wales has his work cut out for
him.

To be clear, I think Wales is right: The news, as he says, is
“broken.” The business model for journalism is broken. The
business of journalism is, simply put, experiencing an historic
decline in paid advertising and circulation, leading to deep
newsroom cutbacks that have harmed quality journalism at a time
when quality journalism is needed most. Something needs to be
done.

So enter Jimmy Wales – and the challenges he and his colleagues
have decided to address with Wikitribune. Again, I’m not
skeptical about the general concept of professional journalists
and volunteer fact checkers and others collaborating together
to produce quality content that readers can enjoy and trust,
especially if each story is accompanied with a detailed list of
all the sourced materials used in an article.

What I am worried about are the challenges of putting together
an incentive system that will make such an endeavor successful
and sustainable over the long haul.

Current plans call for Wikitribune to raise enough subscription
money to hire 10 journalists. But scaling and coordinating a
larger team may not be as easy. Ensuring quality and timely
reviews, and attracting enough funds for longer investigative
projects will require building an engaged and committed
community.

Above all: How many contributing readers will it take to build
a quality digital newsroom that can consistently produce high
quality, relevant, original and timely news content that
readers want? And how will they overcome the fact that the vast
majority of web readers now expect to get their news for free?

Besides the professional journalists, think about everyone else
who will be contributing content: photo and video editors,
facts and grammar checkers, and others. A successful platform
will either need well-designed economic incentives or a
pro-socially motivated community to feel part of, possibly
both.

Multiple, related experiments are also shaping up within the
blockchain and cryptocurrency community. After Bitcoin showed
the world that one can bootstrap a secure, global platform for
exchanging value by combining cryptography with game theory,
startups and open source teams are now focused on building a
stronger, decentralized internet.

Projects like the ones developed by the teams behind Blockstack,
Filecoin,
Protocol Labs
or the Basic Attention Token
have the potential to completely reshape how content is
generated, distributed, consumed and rewarded online.

While the infrastructure needed to reinvent advertising, online
payments, cloud services, identity and reputation systems
through crypto tokens is still early-stage, in the long run it
will change
how society sources, aggregates and rewards
information and
other digital goods, including news.

Eventually, Wikitribune or one of the platforms built on top of
a crypto token can get there. Building a quality journalism
platform is not an impossible dream with today’s technology.
But it is an idealistic dream that’s going to take time, more
than one organization and multiple experiments to succeed.


Featured Image:
selimaksan
/Getty Images

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