Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wikipedia, Collective Knowledge and Newspapers

A few years ago, I sat in a meeting with an editor and argued that we should start a local version of Wikipedia. The idea was simple. We could remain the historical knowledge of the community by using our Web site to help us.

Given that we were focusing on how to improve our online content, this new element, I thought, would offer something that people would come back to over and over again. (As an example, just consider Joe Biden’s folks trying to rewrite his political history with plagiarism.)

I figured it would be a cross between the newspaper archive and refrigerator journalism. Unless you’re from a particular region, state or community, you’re probably not going to go searching for this kind of stuff. However, school kids, locals and folks who need term paper topics for college might find it handy. It was, I believed, another way to chronicle the area’s history. And a new way to look at our jobs as journalists.

The idea was shot down for a number of reasons, including: The newsroom didn’t have the staff to maintain it; There was an unwillingness to open up the project to the community; There seemed no way to connect it to our online efforts; and most importantly, at a time when newspapers were struggling financially, it would compete with the idea that people would pay for old newspaper stories in the newsroom's archives.

Back then newspaper companies around the United States were struggling to keep readers from dropping their print subscriptions. They’re still struggling now, even though they've all changed their focus to online.

I must be honest. I’m part of the problem. I used to read a print newspaper every day. Several of them. I used to collect them on vacations so I could see what my colleagues were all doing and how well they were doing it. I used to think I’d never do anything but work for one. But today, I have a job at an Internet startup company, and if it weren’t for my parents, (and my boss who still gets the NY Times daily for work) I would rarely read a printed newspaper.

My parents are not the norm. They don’t own a computer or know how to use one. In fact, they weren’t sure what I did when I worked for one. And now that I work for a Web site, I might as well be working on another planet.

I, on the other hand, have a laptop at home connected to the laptop at work. I have a laptop at work connected to RSS feeds from around the world. I read more news online than I ever did when I collected newspapers to read. And my Blackberry connects me to everything, all the time, even in traffic. Not a day goes by in which I don’t know what’s happening, when it’s happening, updated by news alerts. So by the time the newspaper arrives at my doorstep every morning, I’ve heard it all several times over.

The only time I check the news is when it’s breaking. For example, when the recent shooting at a Wendy’s restaurant occurred down the street from where I live, I went to my local newspaper’s Web site to check out the coverage. I was able to share the name of a person in the restaurant at the time with an editor in another part of the state where that person was from – helping an editor in a newsroom I used to work in get a local angle to a story that got national attention.

I have, unfortunately, become the reader I wanted so badly to attract when I was working in newspapers, which circuitously gets me back to my point.

If we want to attract readers to newspaper Web sites, we have to be more than we have become. And one of the things I think we lost along the way was our commitment to being the historical memory of our communities. Between the buyouts and the layoffs, employees with years of experience in their communities no longer work at a place where they can share their knowledge with readers.

So here’s a suggestion. Give up your paid archives. If you were making the kind of money from them you needed, you wouldn't be laying off folks in the newsroom. And because I'm the kind of news person who hates telling you what to do without offering to make it better, here's an idea to consider.

Set up a Wikipedia for your community with topics based on the beats that are important to your readers. Use the collective knowledge of your readers to build that historical knowledge for your news Web site. Then assign upkeep of the facts of those entries to reporters in your newsroom – or if you’re a larger newsroom and still have a librarian or two, they can help as well. Older reporters who might be annoyed by the new work could be swayed by its ability to become a community resource. And reporters new to a particular beat might actually learn something about their community before they go out to cover it.

Then, if you consider my previous blog on links, you'd be able to use it to give readers a deeper online content experience. Every time a name pops up in a story or a well-known court case is mentioned, you can use your community's Wikipedia. And if you're like the editors I have spoken with who have concerns about the resource's accuracy, you will know that your version has been fact-checked by your staff as part of your new media efforts.

In the end, you become more useful to your readers. And who knows? You might attract an advertiser or two along the way.

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