Wiki cooties and the death of editorials

Wiki cooties and the death of editorials

: Well now the LA Times has given wikis cooties. The New York Times and other media outlets have covered the collapse of its wikitorial project and I’ve heard more than one old-media person say, well, I see LA tried wikis and it’s dangerous.

But no. This is like hearing Kathie Lee Gifford try to rap and then, upon hearing the results, declaring hip hop dead.

The LA Times didn’t understand what it was doing and made three criticial mistakes:

1. Collaboration vs. argument — I said this from the start: They didn’t get that wikis are a collaborative medium where, even when people disagree, they try to find common ground, knowing there can be only one outcome, or else the wiki will, by its very nature, fail. This is why I suggested having two wikis, instead — one pro, one con and let the best wiki win — and Jimbo Wales was starting to do that… but the trolls took over the forest first.

2. Care and feeding — All communities need attention. The Times should have gone to Jimbo and, he said today, he would have had a few good Wikipedians watch over their foray. You don’t build a town without cops. You don’t build a community site — a town online — without a clean-up crew, either. He also would have explained how to use wikis, since he knows. But the paper thought they knew best and this leads to be biggest mistake:

3. Newspaper ego — Here is the Times’ worst mistake and its most predictable: They think everything is about them. I’ve sat in meetings with newspaper editors who earnestly think that the best use of internet interactivity is to let the people talk about what they have written, to discuss them, to keep them in the spotlight they built for themselves. There is no bigger institutional ego than a newspaper’s. Presidents and popes get humbled more often than editors. Well, at least they used to.

No, guys, the best use of a wiki would have been to have the public create wikis to share their knowledge and viewpoints with you. I don’t know what the big issues are in LA, but here in New York, it might work better just to open the gates to watch people create pro and con wikis on the Olympics and a new Manhattan stadium and 10 ways to improve the schools….

But even that is an exhibition of media ego. For the truth is, if people wanted to do that, they could go to any number of places and do it on their own. They don’t need newspapers to give them technology. And they certainly do not need newspapers to tell them what to talk about.

If newspapers would just listen — and use this techology to do that — they’d find that the people don’t want to talk about what the editors talk about. And they certainly don’t want to talk about the editors.

Let’s take it up a notch:

What this really points toward is the death of the editorial page. Why the hell do we need editorials anymore? In their day, they were the voice — the bully pulpit, as Rupert Murdoch says — of one person: the publisher, the guy who had the ultimate conch, the printing press. We, the people, never said we gave a damn what he thought, but we had no choice but to listen. And so over the years, he convinced himself that we cared. What if we don’t?

The truth is that an editorial is just another blog post written by one person witih one viewpoint. Here’s a case where you can’t argue that it makes a difference having a journalism degree and a newsroom. Editorialists and columnists get to read the same stuff we do and they put on their pants and opinions just the way we do. So why should they have rights to the mountaintop? Who died and made them Moses? Let the people speak.

Look at this vision for a newspaper of the future and how opinions work from the blogger at Reasons Unbeknownst:

A successful newspaper of the future is going to have a bigger op-ed section filled with the latest, highest ranked opinions found on Maybe the entire paper version of the paper goes op-ed. Why print real news if itís just going to be outdated and lack animations and videos compared to the web? Internet aggregation on paper. Mmmm, just had a business idea.


And so, in the end, the newspaper becomes a wiki. And it’s not wikis that have cooties. It’s newspaper editorials.

: See also Ernie Miller:

Reporting that the wiki has been shut down is the easy part. Letting people know whether the experiment was otherwise successful is the hard part, and no one in the traditional press seems eager to confront it….

It is bad enough that many in the traditional media don’t understand how wikis can succeed – they can be exceedingly useful and productive. It’ll be worse if they don’t understand how wikis can fail.

: AND: Let me be clear: I hope the LA Times gets back on the bike and rides again. I salute them for the effort; the heart is in the right place. But I would hate to see one misstep cancel the race … for the LA Times and for other newspapers, all of whom need to learn how to listen.

: I didn’t see the LA Time story today on my first search. They say they might restart it:

But managers of the newspaper’s editorial and Internet operations, which have undergone a number of changes in recent months, said they might attempt to resurrect online editorials written collectively by readers.

“As long as we can hit a high standard and have no risk of vandalism, then it is worth having a try at it again,” said Rob Barrett, general manager of Los Angeles Times Interactive….

Although marred by some profanity by contributors, the experiment got off to a fairly high-minded start, said Michael Newman, deputy editor of the editorial page, who proposed the wikitorial idea.

Voluntarily overseeing part of the discussion was Wikipedia founder Jim Wales, who soon encouraged “forking” the editorial into two pieces ó one taking a pointed anti-war stance and the other arguing for the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq.

After midnight Saturday, Newman said, he stopped monitoring the site for the night, and later the pornographic images began to pour in.

It appears that part of the problem is that an editor was monitoring the site and had to sleep. He needs help. At Advance, my last job, we put together a network of forum cops who responded to alerts from readers when something bad went up. Note two important elements: First, you have to give the readers the tools to report problems. Second, you have to make sure someone responds to the alarm. If you respond, this will work and the people will snitch for you; if you do not respond and they are calling a 911 line that never answers, then it will turn into — as this did — outtakes from Caligula.

: And here’s Joe Gandelman’s take.

  • I don’t buy the death of the Op-Ed section. I think you overstate the equality of ideas. I read the NYTimes Op-Ed every morning because I know an idea written there carries weight. Yes, I do have my own blog and occassionally editorialize there but I don’t have the guaranteed audience of the Op-Ed page. If Maureen Dowd or Thomas Friedman touch a nerve with something they write it makes it to cable news that evening. Even the A-list bloggers need more time than that for an idea to build. I agree with you on where we are heading but we are not there yet!

  • Ethan

    “This is like hearing Kathy Lee Gifford try to rap and then, upon hearing the results, declaring hip hop dead.”
    Brilliant. I’ll pay you a penny in royalties from now on everytime I use this.

  • (Long comment, but this is something that’s been on my mind…)
    The problem with the LAT effort: It’s the wrong specific application of the right general idea.
    The right general idea: We are an increasingly siloed society, with individual interactions outside of narrow, self-defined communities (the folks you work with, the geeks you code with, the people you see in church on Sunday, etc.) few and far between. Broad engagement in civic life is on the wane at best and nearly dead at worst. Newspapers (and yes, blogs and wikis too!) have a role to play in fixing that because they can become a platform for engagement rather than just reporting — in effect, they can potentially become the civic square that’s lacking in modern life.
    Newspapers have a particularly strong interest in this, because they’ve long since ceded rapid-response reporting to TV, radio and the internet. If a major daily like the LAT can’t shore up its role as a leading, thoughtful voice of the community, then there’s going to be a lot of scaling back as readers (and subsequently, advertisers) leave the paper.
    The wrong specific application: Letting people post the equivalent of counterpoint graffiti on an editorial page isn’ going to fix things.
    Follow me on a ramble here — we’ll get back to the LA Times in a minute.
    Naysaying in policy and politics has grown louder for years on the basis of a common refrain — Americans are apathetic about politics and public life. But in my work (I do public outreach and involvement for big infrastructure projects, in addition to my more straightforward marketing practice), I’ve found it’s not as simple as that:
    * Americans are not apathetic, but they feel impotent when it comes to politics and public policy. Many citizens believe they have been pushed out of the policy and political processes by lobbyists, politicians and the media, and left little room to make a difference.
    * Citizens will get involved if they believe they can make a difference. The compact many Americans subscribe to is fairly simple, but devastating from a traditional political and policy viewpoint: The majority of people will get involved if they believe there will be at least the possibility to personally contribute to change.
    * Reconnecting citizens and the public square will take more than tinkering with the system. Citizens want to be more than bystanders who are told the policy game is open and fair — they want a way to participate in public life themselves. Both the political process and the media have to change to make this happen, but the truth is the media (traditional as well as new) can lead this change.
    That’s a steep challenge for policymakers — and journalists. Consider how a public issue typically plays out.
    The conventional approach to public debate on big issues is based on publicity, with everyone staking out positions and trying to sell the public on plans. It’s not a bad model, but it’s not really how most people form opinions on big issues:
    * People like to talk to their peers. This is the area where newspapers have failed the most. By intentionally walling themselves off from the public in a shroud of objectivity and through the conflict-driven, Smith-says, Jones-retorts nature of the news-story format, newspapers have become less relevant to decisonmaking.
    * Emotion is always part of the equation. Newspapers have gotten better at this, but most are still uncomfortable with inserting the author’s or the publication’s emotional stance into the story. Even worse, the featurization of the news pages means this is happening in a sort of haphazard way that leaves readers confused. Blogs get the edge here because most are exceptionally open about the dog they have in the race.
    * Readers reject us/them, yes/no, now/never choices when they’re offered up on a silver platter. People aren’t stupid — anyone who’s ever had something they personally know a lot about reported in the paper understands the necessary shallowness of daily newspaper reporting. Newspapers need to break out of the conflict-driven nature of much news reporting because the near-obsessive search for blanance and objectivity means that everytime you quote someone saying “the sky is blue,” you need to find someone else who says “no, asshole, it’s cyan!”
    * People may not respect newspapers, but they usually respect the concept of an editor or moderator. The most engaged groups are the ones working with someone who understands the subject matter at hand and is a known presence in the community.
    And that last point gets me back to what the LA Times should be doing. Their error lies in assuming blogs = populism, so Successful New Newspapering(tm) must = more populism, too. That’s just not the case; Successful New Newspapering doesn’t mean more populism as much as it means more engagement.
    LA Times editors: Go ahead and own your editorial page — it’s your paper, and you already do a great job of having diverse voices from the community offer up commentary. The newspaper’s editorial is the one place you currently allow the organization to have a subjective voice — don’t throw that away.
    However, consider this: Use some of the vast resources of your parent company to offer free, idiot-proof blog space to your subscribers. Go ahead and sell ads, but also allow every blogger to stick in a Google AdSense banner if they want to, and let them keep anything they earn. Throw promotions, offer prizes, discount the subscription price if someone starts a blog — do whatever you have to do to build a base of subscribers who are also bloggers.
    Still with me? Good. Now: Every one of those bloggers should be subject to a limited Creative Commons License allowing you to: a.) publish URLs of interesting content your editors find; and b.) Excerpt content for use in the print edition.
    You’ve just done several things:
    * You’ve created an online advertising vehicle that requires less effort to sell (assuming you use pay-per-click as your model). Most newspapers try to sell ads into their online sites and most generate negative or near-negative returns on those sales.
    * You’ve created a deep content pool. Armed with only a few editors, you can pull together a weekly section that would be, I believe, the best read in the paper after six months. Why? Because the voices would be genuine, unprofessional, opinionated and resonant with readers. Will you have to do some editing and fact checking? Yes, but that’s light labor compared to pulling together a regular section. Oh, and give thought to doing a daily column of excerpts as well.
    * … and… wait for it… you’ve creatied the basis for a new town square, with your paper as the foundation. Spirited dialogue, opinions everywhere and a lot of cross-chatter. Which is just as it should be.

  • You haven’t even brought up the heavily moderated comments section, “letters to the editor”. If you want to comment on an editorial opinion, you send it in and see if anyone gives a crap. If you want to find out what people think of an editorial, you wait a few days until they decide which opinions and information might be relevant.
    If I were running a paper today, I would publish every editorial online FIRST, and print it after 24 hours of comment, along with the best/most popular comments. What’s most popular? Threads that have a lot of discussion, or with facts that directly contradict the opinion.
    In fact, create an online comments section for every STORY, and publish stories online as they’re written, not at some bogus morning deadline. This promotes the online presence.
    And following the Google model, you find more ways for it to make you money A YEAR AFTER you figure out how to draw audience to it. And you separate the money side from the getting-an-audience side.
    The problem is that it’s deceptively hard to understand… this is all new to everyone. Nobody is majoring in the sociology of online community and if there were a course on it I’m sure it would be taught poorly.

  • Jayme: I didn’t say the death of op-ed. i said it’s the death of ed.
    may ed rest in peace.
    Greg and ‘toad: Great stuff.

  • One thing I feel I should say is that Rob Barrett, the LA Times GM, deserves kudos for wanting to use blogs, wikis, and other emergent technologies to reinvigorate the output of the entire media entity. I’ve talked to him many times about this kind of stuff and to say he’s on the side of the angels is a massive understatement.
    Well done, Rob. Short-term stumbling often precedes huge success.

  • I’d pay to hear Kathy Lee Gifford rap.
    What the L.A. Times needs to do is Wikitize their news reports, many of which could do with a bit of “background.” They could keep the standard news report, and link to the Wiki version in which people could discuss what the LAT lied about or just ignored.

  • abb3w

    I’d disagree slightly with the remark that a dead-tree newspaper editorial is “just another blog post”. People who work for newspapers have been given professional training in critical thinking and in effective written presentation of ideas. Not all of them are equally good at it, but nearly all editorials are better written than the average blog post.
    That said, there are some bloggers out there who are of at least equal caliber with the “professionals” at your daily paper, and many more who rise to at least a comparable level on their best days. However, sorting through the many mediocre bloggers and blog posts to find the good ones is time consuming. There’s still some value to old fashioned news and opinion editors.

  • chicagoblogger

    Aahh — but you miss an important point. The editorial page is the best way for us readers to understand the underlying bias and viewpoint of the paper. Without the NYT editorial page, we might actually think that 37 (is that the number) straight days of Abu Ghraib on the front page was reflective of the true importance of that relative to say, good news from Iraq. It helps the reader understand that the editor actually chooses what runs and doesn’t and where he is coming from.
    I think they should move the Op-Ed page to page 1 for all those folks who think the NYT is unbiased, e.g.

  • … You miss a number of important things about the Op-ed pages.
    1), a good editorial writer isn’t just emoting … he’s reporting without the training wheels on. When Kristof tells us about gang-rapes in Sudan, stuff that really happened but can’t be 100% black-and-white reported on daily … it tugs the heartstrings and brings it to the forefront.
    2) A good editorial writer marshals a whole gang of opinionists, who are respected enough to garner his attention.
    3) a good editorial writer/editor is speaking to one community, one that can’t always hit the web. As of now, not more than at absolute most 10-15% of the population regularly reads blogs … I’m just guessing but c’mon really? Maybe one day, things will change … But I think hardcore American newspapers, unbiased *wink wink* as they are, will always require that biased, slanted, HONEST reporting coming through in a good editorial. A bad editorial rehashes something you know and tells you why. A good one points out things the articles won’t and says things they can’t and raises awareness about issues the paper doesn’t deem important enough to cover on page 1.
    Plus, it’s good to know that a team of dedicated news junkies got together in a room and made a decision, endorsed a candidate or held someone or something accountable. Blogs, until they rival newspapers, will never carry that weight.
    I say this as the son of, and an aspiring, Editorial Page Editor.

  • Todd Fletcher

    I think a wikitorial may be fundmentally the wrong application if wikis, even with the pro vs con idea.
    Editorials aren’t about knowledge, they’re about viewpoint. Whereas wikis are about pooling distributed knowledge.
    An editorial is the start of converstaion. A Wiki is the end result of a conversation.

  • Editorials certainly offer more than the average blog post. Editorial boards gather to discuss issues and craft arguments. They meet with representatives of the various sides where they hold what can be free-wheeling discussions that illuminate in ways an interview or casual conversation cannot. And, they are based (if done well) on much research. Sure, citizens have access to much of what editorial writers see, but do they take the time to sift through it all, particularly the parts that support views with which they disagree? Why must pundits always predict the death of one thing when something similar and new comes along? If anything, blogs make editorials more potent, because a well-reasoned analysis which takes account of the multiple sides of an issue can cut through the partisan, quick-draw opinions offered on blogs. That doesn’t mean blogs are less valuable; far from it. But they can and will peacefully co-exist with editorials, not replace them.

  • But Jon and John, that’s hubris. The collective wisdom of even the very best editorial board is minute compared to the collective wisdom of the audience.
    There is nothing magical about even the considered opinions of a bunch of people on an editorial board. It’s an insular approach in a group-think environment.

  • Some of you are confusing op-ed with ed. Op-ed is about signed columnists and contributors. I’m talking about editorials, unsigned voices from on high.

  • nick

    Jeff Jarvis wrote:
    “But Jon and John, that’s hubris. The collective wisdom of even the very best editorial board is minute compared to the collective wisdom of the audience.”
    History is full of examples of collective wisdom gone awry. In the middle of this century, the collective wisdom in the deep south tolerated lynchings and cross burnings. Left to their collective wisdom, they might still be doing it.
    Opinions change over time and it’s usually the result of one or two clear voices who speak cleary and eloquently.
    One more thing to add. Wiki’s and cooties? Anything with those to words in the title is definitely doomed to failure.

  • nick

    Sorry Jeff, I attributed that quote to you. It should have been addressed to Undertoad. All apologies…

  • Keith L.

    “They think everything is about them. I’ve sat in meetings with newspaper editors who earnestly think that the best use of internet interactivity is to let the people talk about what they have written, to discuss them, to keep them in the spotlight they built for themselves.”
    Um, how is this different from bloggers having a Comments section, to let people talk about what they have written?

  • . . . nearly all editorials are better written than the average blog post.
    Nearly all blog posts by well-respected bloggers, writing about their area of expertise, are better than the average editorial on the same topic.

  • “Um, how is this different from bloggers having a Comments section, to let people talk about what they have written?”
    Why, not at all! Glad someone noticed.
    Apparently, the LA Times should allow people from anywhere on the planet to talk about anything they want while the Times foots the bill for their graffiti–as well as the bill for constant management and deletion of the garbage.
    How unreasonable for the Times to expect their wiki to further their own business interests, as opposed to providing a free forum for anyone with a keyboard.

  • Sending in this open letter to the editor tomorrow, would apprecate contributions.

  • Oops, wrong link. To make up for it, here are some right ones:
    * Wiki page for editing the letter to the editors
    * Snapshot of the letter
    * Kicking off the letter
    * Wikitorial Fork
    * Initial skepticism