12 June 2008

SPOTLIGHT - WIKIS

Welcome to the latest SPOTLIGHT post. This week’s subject is the wiki - something which always seems to be on the cusp of becoming the next big thing in journalism.

Firstly we’ll look at what a wiki actually is before showing some examples of how wikis are being used by journalists and then offering links to some practical guides.

What’s A Wiki

Here’s an excerpt from the Poynter Online definition of a wiki:

“A wiki is an application that allows Web users to contribute to a site and edit its content. Collaborative Web sites based on the wiki principle are themselves known as wikis, a term derived from the Hawaiian word for quick.”

Unlike blogs where the author is in control of the content and visitors may only contribute via comments, wikis place control firmly with their users - whoever they may be.

And how much control is up to the administrator - visitors can have the power to add, remove and edit content as well as change the structure of the wiki by creating new pages.

These changes are usually tracked by a page history which shows all the previous versions of each page.

Importantly, users do not need to know any computer code in order to submit their content so wikis essentially enable non-techies to create and edit websites.

For a simple and effective explanation of wikis, here’s a video tutorial from Common Craft.



While a brief history of the wiki is supplied by online journalism lecturer and blogger Paul Bradshaw on his wiki.

The Wiki Landscape

Thanks to their user-friendly features and ease of creation, there are millions of wikis on the Web and on intranets around the world.

Like blogs, there are also lots of different providers who supply the requisite software and templates.

Perhaps the best known wiki is Wikipedia - “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” - which now boasts almost 2.5 million articles created by its community of registered users.

But wiki creators don’t necessarily have to think this big as they can take advantage of the so-called wiki farms which enable beginners to quickly set up their own little space on their wiki pages.

From PBwiki to WikiSpaces to Wetpaint, there are plenty of organisations offering free wikis to anyone from major corporations to primary schools and individuals.

Wiki Journalism

So what has any of this got to do with journalism? Well, advocates of wiki journalism suggest that the collaborative nature of wikis makes them an ideal platform for the integration of user-generated content.

Birmingham City University lecturer Paul Bradshaw has asserted: “Wikis allow news operations to effectively cover issues on which there is a range of information so broad that it would be difficult to summarise effectively in one article, or by one journalist, alone.”

And Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has said mainstream news organisations could use wikis as a space on their site where local communities can post their own news.

Bradshaw has also provided a useful guide to categorise the different ways journalists can use wikis and here’s some of the main types he suggests:

Crowdsourcing Wikis – This asks users to contribute information on big topics or ideas to produce an article or resource with a depth that could not have been produced by journalists alone.

Second Draft Wikis – Journalists write an article and upload it to a wiki so users can make amendments.

Open Wikis – Where users have the freedom to write anything about subjects of their choosing.

Now let’s have a look at some of these ideas when they’re put into practice.

Wikinews

One of the few examples of an open wiki devoted entirely to citizen journalism is Wikinews, which is owned by Jimmy Wales and his Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikinews boasts original reporting and aims to provide news written from a neutral standpoint.

Its guidance page also reveals that Wikinews wants to give a voice to communities which feel underrepresented in the mainstream media.

Wikinews is yet to emulate the widespread success of its counterpart Wikipedia but it is proving to be a popular go-to site in the wake of major breaking news stories such as Hurricane Katrina.

Mainstream Media & Wikis

Not many mainstream media news providers have used wikis in the course of their online coverage, but here are some of those that have taken the plunge.

The Los Angeles Times invented a new term for its foray into the world of wikis in 2005 when it invited users to make changes to an editorial piece.

Called a wikitorial, the article regarding American action in Iraq was a finished comment piece which visitors were able to edit as they saw fit.

However, some inappropriate editing saw the wikitorial taken down by LA Times staff, as this Guardian article explains.

A year later, technology magazine Wired conducted its own wiki experiment by putting up an unedited article for users to amend on SocialText.

The piece attracted almost 350 edits and writer Ryan Singel outlined the positive and negative aspects of this group editing project in a subsequent Wired article.

Since the experiment, Wired has launched two ongoing open wiki projects where users are given more freedom.

The Big Questions wiki invites users to post their ideas on what should be the key questions in the world of science while the How-To wiki asks readers to submit articles offering tips and tricks on anything.

Next up is the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is trying to create a resource about the local music scene by using a wiki.



Here’s how they explain the ethos behind the Amplipedia wiki:

“We’re passionate about San Diego music, but we’ll admit we don’t know everything. That’s why we need your help to tell the whole story - about San Diego’s best music venues, bands big and small, and the continually evolving changes in our local music scene.”

The final mainstream media example comes from the UK and shows how news organisations can create wikis which exist outside of their own websites.

Cornwall and Devon Media launched wikiKernow in March this year with the aim that the wiki will become a valued resource for both Cornish natives and visitors to the county.



Pages were initially created by ThisisCornwall journalists but now the site is open to user-generated content and subjects include restaurant guides, town histories and local myths.

[Cornwall Gets Wiki Treatment – March 2008]

Incidentally, environmental journalism students at Michigan State University have done a similar open wiki for North America’s Great Lakes.

Internal Wikis

As well as these external wikis where users are invited to produce content, some newspapers are using wikis as an internal communication tool.

Examples include a closed newsroom wiki created by the Raleigh News & Observer where journalists can post details about ongoing news stories and find out their colleagues’ areas of expertise.

The St Louis Post-Dispatch has installed a wiki to act as a practical information resource for its team of researchers.

Pros and Cons

As the above examples demonstrate, some experiments with news wikis haven’t proved entirely successful and this has led some to suggest that wikis are not really suitable for journalism.

So it would be useful here to provide a brief round-up of some of the perceived pros and cons of wikis.

Daily Telegraph blogger Shane Richmond wrote in 2007 that some of the problems with wikis include vandalism, inaccuracy and authority.

He has suggested that these obstacles need to be addressed before mainstream media can deploy them with confidence.

Meanwhile, Bradshaw outlined on his wiki both the advantages and disadvantages of using the application to report the news.

Under strengths he pointed out that wikis can improve a site’s stickiness and can help journalists identify the issues that their readership want to see addressed.

In his round-up of weaknesses Bradshaw suggested that, quite simply, the vast majority of users don’t know what a wiki is.

Resources

If these examples have inspired you to create your own wiki, then your first action will be deciding what kind of wiki software you’d like to use.

WikiMatrix helps you choose the wiki that suits you through its Wizard device where users input required features - from page history to storage requirements - and it brings up the closest matches.

And Wikipedia has this useful page which compares and contrasts a large number of wiki software providers on a range of categories such as cost, privacy options and editing capabilities.

Once you’ve selected your template, the Thought Farmer blog has six steps to launching a successful wiki project.

It’s chiefly concerned with internal wikis but also has some good tips for setting up public wikis.

Finally, if you want to know more about wiki journalism, Bradshaw’s wiki has this reference list which links to stories about internal and external wikis and to academic articles on the subject.


That’s it for this SPOTLIGHT post, do get in touch if you have an example of a wiki you’ve created and let us know any themes you’d like to see covered in the future.

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