Wiki what? Wiki who? Wiki why?

Carlos Virgen rounds up some thoughts on wiki use by news organizations, but I always get the feeling that most reporters and editors stop reading at the word “wikitorial,” freak out, and hide under the desks.

Still here?

Good. Carlos has a great idea about using a wiki as a “contextual archive” for related stories. (Matt Thompson might call them “topics.”)

Carlos says:

“So maybe calling it a wiki is the wrong thing to do. Maybe it would be more precise to call it a contextual archive of news stories. Although I think incorporation wiki conventions such as public input via comments and edits (after a reasonable registration to preclude trolls) should be a big part of this feature.”

I like the idea, but I’d like to reiterate my frequent pitch for using wiki software to build an evergreen “FAQ About [Your Town Here].”

It doesn’t even need to be a fully open to the public for editing endeavor — you could use one account for your entire news organization and let any staff edit it.

This is really a wiki in FAQ’s clothing.  This, my friends, is a gateway wiki.

It should be good for SEO if you do it right, it would drive traffic to your news site (because you would link to stories that helped answer the questions, yes?) and it could serve as trip-to-the-morgue-free reference material for reporters.

Looking for those notes on who was the district superintendent in 1981?  Would you rather search your news site (or a filing cabinet) or search your wiki that has links to the pages for the school district, the year, the superintendent, all superintendents, and links to the relevant stories if you really need them after all that?

Back in Santa Cruz, I always thought this would be perfect during tourist season.  Entries on parking, the Boardwalk, Umbrella Man, surf lessons, etc…  The questions locals constantly answer. Well, maybe I answered these more often than most as a bartender, but you get the point.

Then, how about a front page print tease on a regular basis with a fun “fact about town” to drive people to the FAQ and let them know it’s there?

This is low-hanging fruit if you ask me.  I recommend MediaWiki, which looks, feels, and acts like Wikipedia, making it familiar to readers and less complicated than I expected for editors.

[UPDATE: Derek Willis tweeted that he covered this ground and came to similar conclusions in 2005.]

[2nd UPDATE: Brad Flora of Windy Citizen and I ended up having a video chat this afternoon to talk out some ideas around this. Check it out below.]
Should local news sites use wikis? from Knight Pulse on Vimeo.

11 thoughts on “Wiki what? Wiki who? Wiki why?”

  1. Questions:

    1. Why fork wikipedia?

    2. Doesn’t Wikia already have wikis for every city?

    3. What would really, truly, differentiate this from existing wikis? How does this become anything other than Google spam? Why would someone explicitly go here?


  2. I’m up for it. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years and those are the questions I always come back to. Curious to hear Ryan’s thoughts on them.

    Note: I am skype illiterate but would be up for learning how to record something with it.


  3. Thanks for the mention. I’ve emailed a link to my blog post to our newsroom. Be interesting to see what kind of response it gets. As far as the “FAQ About Walla Walla,” I absolutely think it is low hanging fruit that small orgs like ours should pick. How to get it started? Should we first (before the wiki is made public) create the wiki and send out invitations to everyone in the news org and selected “experts” in the community? Or create the wiki with some select entries, make it public and see what becomes of it? Do you have any examples of someone doing this already?


  4. Well that was cool — Brad and I just recorded a short video conversation — I’ll post it here when it’s online. (Thanks!)

    @Carlos – I would build a list of categories and create a couple sample pages to send out to newsroom staff, then get them started adding their own. If they get into it, one category will create a need for the next — every proper noun they type in probably needs a page, especially if this is local information that’s not “notable enough” for Wikipedia itself, as Brad put it in our video talk.

    Then you can start opening it up to public *view*, but I’d try to build some momentum and make sure that you have the newsroom engaged in it, caring for it, growing it, before you open it up to the public (or to a subset of the public) for editing.


  5. Hey Ryan,
    I wholeheartedly believe that news organizations should embrace wikis, both for internal organizational purposes and to provide a public-facing store of local knowledge. My one technical caveat: news orgs should bone up on the details before committing to a wiki. When I worked with Mediawiki several years ago, for instance, the software wasn’t geared for fine-grained permissions. What does that mean? That it’s going to be either impossible or nightmarishly difficult to isolate internal and external content using the software (Disclaimer: I haven’t used Mediawiki for a bit so it’s possible they now offer fine-grained page permissions).

    Before settling on a wiki, I’d encourage a news org to define their short and long-term goals (Do we want an organizational wiki? Do we want the ability to expand into a public-facing wiki?), and then take a hard look at the software, documentation, and its community to see if it suits their needs and offers a strong support network.

    A good starting point to compare and contrast is WikiMatrix (


  6. When I embarked on this fellowship, one of the first things I did was chart out the existing terrain. Who’s already done local wiki projects? Who’s created extensive local topical repositories? My research assistant conducted interviews with the folks behind DavisWiki, OmahaWiki, RochesterWiki and JDLand. Those interviews gave us some foundational knowledge going into this project.

    One thing we found was something you’d expect: successful wiki projects usually feature a good deal of startup content right from the beginning. They also require early, committed investment on the part of the creators (as in several months of daily edits). The goal is to reach a critical mass of content valuable and large enough to sustain itself. Like any social site, it can help to augment the online community with some offline meetups, to discuss what you want the resource to become.

    One of the reasons I decided not to use a wiki for my fellowship project is that the two-semester window wouldn’t give me enough time to sort through our subject matter and make the required up-front investment. Another reason is that I wanted to focus not on the general advantages a wiki could bring – Wikipedia has demonstrated those pretty well – but on the specific advantages that a context-based, repository approach could bring to journalism.

    Yet another reason was that MediaWiki (my choice for the most feature-rich and stable open-source wiki software package) remains somewhat frustratingly difficult to theme, and as Serdar pointed out, it doesn’t have much of a permissions infrastructure.

    But if I get the opportunity to apply these ideas outside of a time-constrained project, I’m pretty certain I’ll try to make wiki software work, and my choice would probably be MediaWiki.


  7. @Matt –

    Thanks for the list! Of course as a resident of the greater Rochester area I’d be totally remiss to have this conversation and not mention RocWiki which is often my first stop when I have one of those frequently asked questions in my head.

    It looks like I need to check out the permissions issues in MediaWiki, although I’m not too keen on fiddling with theming — I figure the more this looks like Wikipedia, the better. Keep it familiar and clear for readers.


  8. Pardon my comment if my idea has already been done/discussed, but I’m currently working on a design/build for a local newssite to my area (thanks for the job opportunity, completely useless circular-daily) and thought of having sort of flash embedded stories, whereby you can mouse over, say, the mayor’s name and see a small popup with quick vitals and the option to click and expand into a larger bio with other in-site story links, web links, media, potentially a personal blog etc. thereby allowing anyone not from the area to read through a sort of enriched article and get a good rounded picture of what the five W’s/H.


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