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Pulling Wikipedia’s Plug, cont’d.

30, April, 2008

Last week’s entry about Wikipedia–titled with characteristic subtlety “Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug“– resulted in the expected crapspatter in wikiville. But since nobody has created a fake Wikipedia bio of me featuring a photo of Curly Howard, I think I’ve emerged largely unharmed.

But I wanted to call attention to a reader comment which makes an excellent point my item did not–that, while both discussion forums and wikis are both 2.0 media types that give users a voice, they are very different products that produce very different types of information. Forums assemble individual voices on a topic. Wikipedia assembles collective knowledge from a group. Point taken.

The comment, from a guy named Greg, makes another point about the limits of the Wikipedia project. I think it’s a useful extention about the nature, and future, of Wikipedia.

So: At the risk of going so media-meta that I disappear into the back side of a Mobius strip, I print the comment, and my response to it, below.

The comment from Greg

I am something of a wikipedia apologist, but I think you are missing a key difference between the goals of wikipedia and support forums (if not the success of said goals). Wikipedia tries to be a generic and unbaised report on a topic backed up with citations from more credible sources. Whereas in a forum, an individual is forced to figure out which “opinion” is best for him or her to use. Yes a forum may have citations from more credible sources, but there is no guidelines or ideology to encourage it. So, two different beasts, no one inherently better than the other.

Of course wikipedia isn’t the the best place for any research past scratching the surface, there is no doubt of that. It’s a starting point at best, and everyone would do well to remember it. One should be checking the citations for detail. But alas, the ideas of primary, secondary, and tertiary research are being lost. You can certainly lay a bit of blame at wikipedia’s feet by not being more clear in its mission, but there are other forces at play as well.

One other thing wikipedia is not is a resource for, and that’s finding other websites related to a topic. The goal as I understand it is to facilitate finding other supposedly more credible and pointed bits of information. To find whole sites… that’s google’s job.–Greg

My response

Thanks much for your good comment. You’re absolutely right that forums and wikis (including Wikipedia) are two very different beasts roaming the odd landscape of 2.0land. We should not expect the same–or even more than a slice of “reality,” whatever that means–from both media types.

Your points about the limitations of Wikipedia–that it’s not great for researching beyond the surface, that it’s at best a starting point, that one should check citations etc.–are good to hear.

I will have to go back and look (in Wikipedia, maybe. Ahem) and compare this to what I recall to be the original claims and intent for the project. I recall an article, I believe in Wired, featuring Mssr. Wales, who spoke in quite utopian terms about the power and magnitude of the project and its vast potential for creating a well informed citizenry. Certainly I’ve read that since, and hear versions of it from folks who participate earnestly in the project. I don’t often hear the caveats you speak of very often from people who support the project.

All of which leads to a question that has been dogging me: whether it’s simply a case that (like any good 2.0 project) once turned over to creators and the audience, Wikipedia has become far different from what anybody anticipated.

For worse or better (I argue the former, others will argue that latter) Wikipedia commands center stage of the encyclopedic information universe right now. I’m beginning to wonder whether, given the flaws I mentioned in my piece and you cite in your comment, whether a big, visible disclaimer should appear on page one, or at the top of every entry. There is an acknowledgment of its limitations on various “about” pages, but I’m guessing Wikipedia’s metrics show that a tiny proportion of users spend much time with those pages.

A clearer statement of limits and approptiate uses would be a public service. It would enhance transparency. I hope these are principles to which the contributors to Wikipedia remain committed.–Craig Stoltz


Putting the “i-” in Pulitzer

8, April, 2008

So yesterday the 2008 Pulitzer prize winners in journalism were announced. It’s an inspiring group of works of what some are now calling “slow journalism”–carefully made, long-cooked, calendar-be-damned, properly staffed, well-written, old-fashioned gumshoe reporting.

[Now accepting proposed coinages for a term to replace the retro, Fedora-esque anachronism “gumshoe” to describe diligent fact-gathering].

Reading the entries (okay, some of the entries; that slow-cooked stuff is long) is enough to make one believe, as many of us refugees from the world of lumberjack journalism insist, that this kind of work must be sustained in the digital age. Not merely for the good of the self-involved journalists who care deeply, perhaps excessively, about the awards. But (to be plain, I intend no irony or sarcasm here) for the benefit of civic life. Each of the news-related winners holds power accountable, most of the projects producing results that clean up some mess or illuminate some untenable situation. Your blog gonna do that, buddy?

HAVING SAID ALL THAT. . .it’s at least interesting, and journalistically significant, to view the digital-only iterations of the winning work. This demonstrates how newsrooms, even when they do world-class work, embrace the new media world.

All a long way of saying: Which winners put the “i-” in Pulitzer? [Conflict-of-interest disclosure: I’m a former employee of The Washington Post, but have tried not to let that influence my opinions below.]

In this order:

1. With six winners, perhaps this rank is inevitable.

Why: Nearly every winning series or story has an elegant, deep, media-appropriate online iteration. The Walter Reed story includes narrated slide shows of genuine photojournalism, interactive explanatory graphics, an unusually rich PTSD primer, key videos showing political responses and public statements, and more additional features than I can list here. Even the feature writing winner, Gene Weingarten’s perfectly-pitched, daringly high-concept tale about luring world-class violinist Joshua Bell into performing in the local subway in disguise has three wonderfully curated and edited ‘hidden camera” videos of the stunt itself that truly enhance the (many!) words of the story in a way no other media could. Plus an audio tape of the entire performance. The bottom line with’s work is that the digital content is not a mere extension of the journalism, but appear to be built in from the ground up.

2. JSOnline, digital arm of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Why: Its relentless three-year pursuit of a shamefully self-dealing county executive that resulted in his resignation offers a startlingly long list of stories, explaineers, graphics, video and audio of press conferences, court actions, etc. (The videos are not just talking-head interviews–a common but largely ineffective digital-journalism gambit. They provide glimpses of the story unfolding over time, including public performances by the perp himself.) One wishes for a package that pulled it all together in a timeline, but to be fair MJS does not have the resources of a major newspaper. The point is, JSOnline added significant value with multimedia reporting and archive it in an accessible manner.


Why: The newspaper’s Kids at Risk series on dangerous products is well-curated and enhanced by an excellent set of resources for parents that help them take informed action. It also features an easy-to-navigate menu of 15 videos, which are on-point and produced more for the content they deliver than for the slickness they convey. They add information rather than recapitulate print content.


Why: The New York Times’ masterful investigation into how deadly fake drugs make it across the globe is enhanced by multimedia that is mostly slick decoration: Over-produced, TV-magazine-style mini documentaries that provide little value beyond the words themselves, competently scanned images of dead graphics published in the paper, an archive of the stories. With the exception of one excellent web-native interactive graphic that illustrates how a toxic solvent made its way from China to Panama, killing 100 people, the digital presentation of these stories consists of little more than what, back in the day, we referred to as “shovelware”–articles shoveled online after they’d been written and, it appears, published in the newspaper.

So what’s the message here? Slow-cooked journalism matters. It can be enhanced in meaningful ways when the projects are constructed, from the outset, as multi-media, cross-team efforts. I’m guessing that some day, the Pulitzers committee may come to recognize online presentation among its judging criteria.

If it doesn’t, it may find itself at the margins, rather than the center, of journalism excellence in the future.