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Wikiwonks soak up their guru's grand vision at Hong Kong conference

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 August, 2013, 5:35am

Journalism is broken - how would you fix it?

That was the question Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales posed to Wikimedians, the online encyclopaedia's armies of volunteers, yesterday.

"This is one of the greatest journalistic opportunities of the century. That we live in an era where possibility to expose wrongdoing is great … these are serious times and we deserve serious journalism," Wales told a packed auditorium at the opening of the 9th annual Wikimania conference in Hong Kong.

"The question is, is it possible to fix this, and what is our role in all of this?"

Wales handed out his e-mail and invited the audience to think about what a publicly funded journalistic enterprise could look like and how it might work. His version was one where professional journalists and community members were on an equal footing, or even where the community was the boss.

If Wales does move into the business, he would be the latest high-profile internet figure to branch out into the news industry. Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post this week for US$250 million.

"Wikimedia is good at this sort of thing. We tend to avoid the tabloid nonsense and get to the important facts. If you go and you read the Wikipedia entry on Edward Snowden … Our main lead headline is not, Edward Snowden, who's he dating now?"

During his presentation, headlines on NSA leaker Snowden's love life from traditional media flickered across the screen.

Harnessing the power of public discussion and the experience of the hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia volunteers, Wales hopes to move away from tabloid-style journalism.

"The solution for journalism isn't going to be a purely volunteer effort, in the way Wikipedia is," Wales said. "A lot of journalism involves getting out to interview people, to produce stories, and that's really hard to do without a salary, without support. So the right way forward is some way that's a hybrid model."

While many nodded in agreement - even journalists - not all are convinced.

Jeromy-yu Chan, former president of the Hong Kong chapter of Wikimedia, said: "You could say Wikipedia itself is also broken, especially the Chinese one. There's not enough volunteers and contributors, and some content is left there and no one really cares about it."

"I'm not sure the media industry is necessarily broken, either. Some are, but the media environment is always changing. Sometimes there is need for things less high-class, or niche, and things sometimes fade away."

Nevertheless, says Shawn Matthews, an independent contractor who designs the fundraising banners for the Wikimedia Foundation, "Journalism definitely needs a re-boot. It's become 100 per cent about entertainment and sensationalism."

For instance, CNN has come under fire, with staff admitting much of the investigative programming had been cut in favour of debates and gimmicky shows, which are cheaper to produce.

Wales, a 47-year-old internet entrepreneur, is a staunch supporter of open data movements. The foundation focuses on providing access to less developed parts of the world, striking deals with telecommunications companies to provide access to Wikipedia free of data charges.

Wikimania brings together editors and knowledge junkies to discuss the future of the free website.

The Wikimedia Foundation employs 150 people to run 13 non-profit information-sharing projects, including Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons and Wiktionary. Wikipedia alone carries more than 30 million articles in 286 languages. It relies on thousands of volunteers around the globe to create, fact-check and correct online entries.

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