The Outline and WikiTribune Maintain Press Ethic
by Mick O'Leary
It’s a bittersweet time for journalism. It’s bitter for legacy news media, which suffer from decreased circulation, diminished ad revenue, and troubling doubts about their place in today’s news environment. It’s sweet for newer properties that are digitally native and pursue new business models.
|Itís easier to get The Outline than it is to explain what there is to get.
What’s common to both legacy and new media is an urgent desire to tell the story, to explain what’s happening, with accuracy, integrity, and even a little flair and style. Two recent entrants to this long and valued tradition are The Outline and WikiTribune.
The Outline (theoutline.com) states that it “is a new kind of publication for a new kind of human.” And that’s not the most pretentious statement that it makes about itself. It also admits to being “really excited about putting something into the world that wasn’t there before.” Well, I don’t recall Homer or James Joyce making such claims, but—grandiose hyperbole notwithstanding—The Outline does have a voice: a clever and edgy take on our current situation.
The Outline was founded in 2016 by Josh Topolsky, formerly an editor with Bloomberg. It is supported by venture capital funding and ads—at least, I think they’re ads, but, with The Outline, it’s hard to tell where one thing stops and another starts. On second look, I noticed that the ads have a little tag that says, “Ad,” which, for The Outline, is an unusual accommodation to clarity. It has content dating from September 2016.
It’s easier to get The Outline than it is to explain what there is to get. It’s a long-form version of Esquire’s Dubious Achievement Awards, a bemused but insightful commentary on our self-made dystopia. The Outline follows three themes—Power, Culture, and Future—each receiving the site’s distinctive twist:
- “Power” is less about who wields power than about those who are on the losing side of power imbalances—among others, marginalized communities, those facing gender inequities, and victims of the U.S. immigration system. A representative article is “Heat Waves Hurt Communities of Color the Most.”
- “Culture” dips into social and media trends, with a sampling of movie and music reviews, but it prefers to chart the quirks of our daily existence. A representative article is “24 Hours at My Local Dunkin’ Donuts.”
- “Future” addresses science and technology developments, especially when the tech is crazy or evil. A representative article is “Uber and Lyft Driver Fired for Secretly Livestreaming Hundreds of Passengers.”
All of this seems clear in the telling, but, in The Outline itself, it’s not. For someone raised on controlled vocabulary and field searching, The Outline is a chaotic dreamscape. There is no newspaper-type front page that’s organized by subject or theme. Instead, The Outline drops you into a kaleidoscopic jumble of articles, with occasional podcasts, ads, and other things that I haven’t yet figured out. Its layout uses garish colors and giant fonts to add to the confusion, or rather, to its quirky appeal. There’s no search function. (Search? How quaint!) But arch mannerisms aside, The Outline’s writing is good: ironic, sarcastic, and funny, but with a serious and responsible core that defines it as legitimate journalism.
WikiTribune (wikitribune.com) takes second place to no one in the ambition of its mission: “The news is broken and we can fix it.” Its method is to apply the Wikipedia system—crowdsourcing with diligent and responsible volunteers working within a curated and consistent content structure—that’s made Wikipedia the wonder that it is. But if Wikipedia is the new Britannica, WikiTribune isn’t the new New York Times—at least not yet.
WikiTribune went live in October 2017, aspiring to be a comprehensive news source that would “present accurate information with real evidence.” It is currently labeled as being in pilot status. It has a permanent core staff of approximately 15 managers and journalists, and what appears to be—based on my survey of the number of contributors to dozens of articles—a fairly small number of volunteers. And this is the challenge for WikiTribune: To achieve its goals as a comprehensive and accurate news source, it will have to scale up exponentially.
WikiTribune covers political, business, technology, cultural, and general news worldwide. Given such a vast scope, coverage of any topic—even those that are the most “newsworthy” to other news sources—is sparse and sporadic. Also, a good share of WikiTribune articles are about stories that are of limited regional or national interest.
WikiTribune articles, following Wikipedia’s practice, are well-organized, are generally clearly written, and provide all edits. They are also usually short—one or two pages—and therefore lack in-depth data or analysis. A good number are what in Wikipedia are called stubs: short abstracts that might grow into full-size articles.
Timeliness is often a problem. A given news story may change from hour to hour and evolve over days, weeks, months, or even years. WikiTribune articles are not always edited sufficiently to keep them up-to-date and can therefore be misleading by lacking important recent developments.
WikiTribune is unevenly organized and doesn’t have solid discovery tools. There is no front page with top headlines. The default story display order is by latest edit, which creates a jumbled list. Stories can also be sorted by Recently Started, Recently Updated, or Most Read and can be limited to Published or Drafts. Articles are assigned Topics—which are broad headings such as Business, Environment, or country name—and Tags—which are narrower, such as people’s names or specific incidents. Topics and Tags aren’t always applied consistently. There is a simple word search, with no advanced options.
Ironically, Wikipedia itself is often far better for news than WikiTribune. A Wikipedia article for a current event typically has background, extensive data, a deep set of references, and even minute-by-minute updates. This occurs as a result of Wikipedia’s large number of active participants. For a model of thorough and timely reporting, WikiTribune doesn’t have to look far.
With the rise of free online news and commercial exchange options, traditional news publishers have encountered a serious economic threat, with which they are still struggling. But in recent years, news media of all kinds are being assailed by a literally more dangerous threat from political movements and leaders who see the free press as a counter to their license and autocracy. With cries of fake news and the harassment and murder of journalists, the press is under attack across the world.
A vibrant and independent free press is essential for an open and secure society. The Outline and WikiTribune, although very different in form and content, both resist the forces that would curtail expression. They share that basic ethic of journalism: to tell a true and good story.