Jimmy Wales’s benevolent Wikipedia wisdom

Most people are fundamentally decent, and we’re now in an era where people can communicate with each other much more effectively than ever before. That, says the online encyclopedia pioneer, gives Israelis a real opportunity for very personal ambassadorship.

Jimmy Wales_311 (photo credit: Chen Galili)
Jimmy Wales_311
(photo credit: Chen Galili)
According to his own entry, Jimmy Wales is either the founder (he says) or co-founder (say others) of Wikipedia, the free, Web-based encyclopedia that hosts 18 million volunteer-written and edited articles in 281 languages and receives 25,000- 60,000 page requests per second, depending on the time of day.
He will turn 45 on the seventh of August, though there’d previously been some confusion in the entry about the precise date. Born in Alabama, a student whiz who left university before finishing his PhD to enter the financial world, Wales has been married twice and has one daughter, his entry states. Four months ago, a Guardian interviewer reported on the imminent birth of another child, with his then-fiancée Kate Garvey, a former diary secretary to British prime minister Tony Blair. His Wikipedia page makes note of this, but sheds no further light on the relationship.
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Such minor uncertainties or confusions in his own entry underline the validity of Wales’s own reported comment in that February Guardian interview, to the effect that “you shouldn’t really use Wikipedia as the sole source for anything, ever. You shouldn’t use anything as the sole source for anything, in my view.” Or, as he said to me, in an interview conducted during last week’s Israeli Presidential Conference, “There are safeguards” on Wikipedia, but “nothing’s perfect.”
But Wales isn’t aspiring to perfection with his revolutionary encyclopedia; he’s after something bigger. In 2004, as recorded on his own entry, he outlined his vision as follows: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”
In our conversation, his fierce sense of purpose was undimmed. He described Wikipedia as “a humanitarian project. It is something really necessary for peace and progress – that people know things.”
Still, he also injected an element of more modest perspective: “We’re there for broad background knowledge. We’re there orienting you, getting you started,” he said. Providing the building blocks of a worldview, I suggested at another juncture in the interview? He assented.
Wales, as you’d imagine, is a smart, sharp interviewee. Like his online database, he wears his scholarship easily, making conversation a pleasure. His insights are not superficial, but they are accessible.
He’s also earnest and likable, and encouragingly upbeat about humankind. One of the behavioral fundamentals guiding the Wikipedia volunteer “community,” he notes, is to “assume good faith.” And he clearly regards the success of Wikipedia, a function of the labors, expertise and integrity of that community, as vindication of his confidence in most people’s decency. “Most people are basically good,” he declares confidently. Which is always pleasant to hear.
Wales says he was “absolutely transfixed” when he came up with the idea of a free encyclopedia for everyone in every language, and that “it has taken over my life” – and you can readily imagine the passion and commitment he unleashed and continues to pour into his transformative project.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, when I put it to him that his life, taken over or not, is irrelevant to Wikipedia now, that his idea has far outgrown him, that he can no longer control it, his instinct is to deny this. “Yes, well, I wouldn’t say I have no control,” he shoots back at first. But then, admirably, he stops and reconsiders. “Actually I do say I have no control,” he acknowledges wryly, “but I wouldn’t say I have no influence...”
I had wanted to meet Wales mainly to talk about the role of Wikipedia in our region – empowering new masses of people with knowledge and with awareness of the wider world, a development that, in turn, may be a root cause of “Arab Spring” ferment. But our conversation ranged further, including into the Wikipedia ethos and evolution, into the future of journalism and communications, and into the new worlds of knowledge that his ubiquitous online encyclopedia have opened up for Jimmy Wales himself.
I was interested to meet with you because of the revolution you’re part of, in terms of the availability of information. I want to ask you about how it is resonating in this part of the world. But some basics, first. Have you been here many times before?
It’s my fifth trip to Israel.
And the first was...?
Probably around 2004 or 2005.
You came because you were curious, or someone brought you?
Both. Bob Rosenschein, the [former] CEO of Answers.com, and [peerless hi-tech entrepreneur] Yossi Vardi arranged for me to speak at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. They brought me over and I did those two talks, which was a great experience.
Has there been any major Israeli practical involvement in the Wikipedia world; any Israeli technology in there?
Hebrew Wikipedia is big: 120,000 articles. So, relative to the number of speakers, it’s quite advanced. And we have a local chapter, Wikimedia Israel, which is a local non-profit organization with a board. This year they’re organizing Wikimania, which is our annual conference. Every year we have the conference for the [Wikipedia-contributing] community. We’ve had it in the past in Frankfurt, Taiwan, Alexandria, Egypt, a couple of years ago, and now we’re in Haifa in August.
In terms of Israeli technology, we’re an open source project so all of our software is open. There are loads of [Israeli] volunteer developers. I was just meeting with one of the guys who is a programmer and he is on the language committee and he’s also a linguist and he’s doing things like helping advise on Indian languages. And he works on software for the blind – what Wikipedia needs to do to be more accessible to the blind.
The ethos and the motivation for the whole Wikipedia project, that information is power: Did you set out to empower the people on this planet?
Pretty much. When I had the idea of a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language, I was absolutely transfixed by it and it has taken over my life. And I do think that a big reason for the success of Wikipedia is that it is an audacious goal – a big vision – so that when people are participating in Wikipedia, they do feel that this is something important.
It’s not just some website you like to goof around on, although it is also a website you like to goof around on: You can meet friends and you work on whatever obscure topic you happen to personally find is your passion. But everyone who is doing it is also aware of this as a charitable project, a humanitarian project. It is something really necessary for peace and progress – that people know things.
You started out with an academic approach – peer review – and that just didn’t fly? (Wikipedia’s precursor, Nupedia, was launched in 2000, with expert-written content, but made little headway.)
And then the minute you said, to hell with this, let’s just see if ordinary people want to do this, it took off overnight?
Yeah, we had more work done in two weeks than we had done in almost two years. Nupedia was a failure. But in one way it was a success: For two years we sat around talking about how to make an encyclopedia: What does it mean? Why? What kinds of standards do we want to have? All those kinds of editorial questions. And we’d brought together a community that was really passionate about the idea and very frustrated that it was not going so well. Once the Wiki (collaborative website, from the Hawaiian word for “fast”) was opened, that community was able to jump in and just start writing straight away.
And what are the parameters?
It’s complicated. If you go into Wikipedia, the “manual of style” is a massive set of pages about every aspect of style. Take the question of reliable sources, for example. You can’t just link to any random blog. There are standards – very complex and quite thoughtful in the main, because if you said, “Well, really, we want to have all peer-reviewed academic journals for our references,” that limits you dramatically. You get nowhere, right? But in certain areas, science for example, that is what you want. And you would say, “We’re not going to give The New York Times as a reference. That’s popularization. Let’s go to the original scientific paper and write from that.” Whereas for other topics, things in the news or political things, obviously the New York Times is a perfectly valid source. So the community is quite thoughtful about those kinds of policies.
And then there’s a lot of the behavioral side of Wikipedia – things like “no personal attacks” and “assume good faith” and some of the social norms that make the community work, that help us be functional as a community. All of those things are much easier to decide because we have this goal, we have this vision of where we want to be: We’re trying to create a high quality encyclopedia. Anything that serves that mission is a good rule. Anything that stands in the way of that is a bad rule.
And you have no control over this anymore. You say it’s taken over your life, but your life is irrelevant to it now. This has far outgrown your life.
Yes, well, I wouldn’t say I have no control. Actually I do say I have no control, but I wouldn’t say I have no influence. Particularly in English Wikipedia, I do have a sort of constitutional role. But speaking more broadly, what I do is basically harp on about the values and mission and keep people focused on those values that bring us together.
Do you see a practical impact on the English-speaking developed world – this or that happened because Wikipedia is there?
I think it’s so pervasive that it’s difficult to say. Everyone’s using Wikipedia basically to learn all kinds of different things.
You haven’t brought down a government?
No. No.
Would you say you’ve empowered democracy, because you’ve given people easier access to the information they need to make informed decisions?
Yeah. What I’ve been saying, bringing [our discussion] a little bit to this region with the Arab Spring, is that Wikipedia is obviously not the place to come and organize a protest. That’s just not what we do, not what we’re about. But it is the place that I think should help, would like to help, to generate social conditions, to generate an educated population or the ability for people to get educated about social systems, about governments, about institutions, what kind of rules work and don’t work, and “how do people live in other parts of the world, and why can’t we have that?” in a very broad way. But we’re only one small piece of the world of education.
Like any website, you can see who’s reading you – what they’re reading and where from?
So did you see, for example, that in Tunisia earlier this year there was a sudden upsurge in reading of articles on democracy and how governments are meant to function?
I don’t know. Actually I would love to research that. That would be something really interesting to know. But to give a specific example: the last elections in Iran. Quite contested, lots of protests. The entry about that in English and the entry in Farsi had huge spikes of traffic from inside Iran and from outside. I was curious myself as to what did it say in Farsi.
People sometimes say, “Are you concerned that [an article like that] would be hijacked by extremists or something?” Not really. We have enough experience now to know that is not really what typically would happen. But I would say that, given the demographics and who’s editing Wikipedia and who’s writing it, I think, in Iran, that article might be extremely pro-democracy and extremely critical of the government just because the kind of young people who write Wikipedia tend to be more worldly.
So I had a friend who is fluent from birth in both English and Farsi translate it for me. Of course translation is quite tricky – although Wikipedia is one of the easier things to translate, just because its style is quite matter-of-fact; there’s not a lot of expressions and phrases; it’s formal language and quite straightforward. Anyway, she translated it as best she could. She said she tried to make a very literal translation.
And the result? I was completely ecstatic about it. It was completely fine. It just gave the facts. It just said there was an election, and then the opposition claimed that there had been fraud or problems, and then there were some protests and some people were killed. It was quite matter- of-fact about what happened, without editorializing about it.
When a crisis is going on, that’s exactly what I want Wikipedia to do. Because you know that it would be very easy for people [to stray from that]. A controlled domestic media is going to be giving you one story. Fairly hysterical press elsewhere or bloggers may be giving you a different story. And what we should be there for is to say, “These are the agreed-upon facts that are uncontested. And these are the things that one side is saying and these are the things the other side is saying.” With those three pieces of information, now you’re informed and you’re oriented.
Do we assume that this particular entry went through a series of relentlessly contested revisions and additions?
Yes, always. There’s always a dialogue and debate.
And isn’t what you ended up with the lowest common denominator of the things one can agree on, and therefore not as useful as a more contentious entry might have been?
I shouldn’t think so, because there’s a difference between excluding something because it was contentious and writing about it by identifying it as contentious. Imagine an entry on a controversial topic like abortion where you might have, on the one side, the Catholic Church position on abortion, and on the other side you might have a Planned Parenthood view on abortion. Wikipedia is not going to present one or the other or exclude one or the other, but it’s going to describe what the context is. We call it “going meta.”
Wikipedia is not here to tell you the answer. Wikipedia is here to describe the argument, and when we do our job well, if you’re a Planned Parenthood activist or a Catholic priest, you should come to the article and say, “Yes, that’s what we’re arguing about. That’s a good description of the problem.” It doesn’t try to land on either side necessarily. It just helps you to understand.
I used to hear my kids coming home from school with their teacher telling them “And don’t just take it from Wikipedia.” That was a function, I assume, of a sense that Wikipedia wouldn’t be sufficiently serious or in-depth or entirely reliable because anybody could change it. Is that no longer the case?
In a healthy way, I think it still is the case, to a degree. As the quality of Wikipedia improves over time, we hear a little bit less of that. It’s also as people come to an understanding of Wikipedia. What we get a lot more from schools is not “Don’t use Wikipedia,” it’s “Here’s how to use Wikipedia. Here are the limitations and here’s what you should look out for.”
I get an e-mail occasionally from someone saying, “I got marked down on my paper because I cited Wikipedia. Can you help me?” I say, “No! You’re in college!” Honestly! When I was in college, you couldn’t cite Britannica. It’s not a statement about quality. That’s not what an encyclopedia is for.
But I think with younger students, if they wrote something and quoted [Wikipedia] and put a footnote in, we should be happy right there: They read something, they wrote something, they made a footnote! That’s amazing.
There does come a point when I say, no matter what the quality of Wikipedia is, even as it gets better and better, in my view that’s not what we’re there for. We’re there for broad background knowledge. We’re there orienting, getting you started. Of course it’s always been a problem that many students would always be lazy.
In terms of abuse, I was actually toying with the idea of abusing your entry and seeing how long it would take to correct, but I thought that was probably not a nice thing to do and then I realized I couldn’t anyway because your entry is locked. Tell me about both of those things.
We always suggest in a slightly morally disapproving tone that people shouldn’t vandalize Wikipedia as an experiment. The analogy which I heard which I loved is that if you hear about a neighborhood where something remarkable is going on, the community goes out and picks up all the garbage and they keep the neighborhood really clean, and you think I’m going to test that by going out at midnight and throwing trash and seeing how long it takes [before it’s cleared up]. That’s just really obnoxious. It’s not the right thing to do.
I’m so glad that I didn’t.
We hope people won’t do these experiments because the answer is either it will get corrected very quickly or it won’t. In terms of empirical results for most basic kinds of vandalism, it’s reverted in under five minutes.
How? You have how many articles?
Three and a half million in English, for example. It’s about giving the community the tools they need in order to monitor. The first thing to pick up is that it’s not [a matter of] how many entries we have, it’s how many edits per hour.
And those show up somewhere?
There’s a “recent changes” page where all the edits come and there are recent changes patrollers who are monitoring those as they come in.
All of this is unpaid?
Yes, yes, all of this is unpaid. They’ve written robots so there is some machine assistance. A lot of vandalism gets reverted by a bot [automatic software application] – so then it’s mere seconds. The kinds of things that get reverted by the bots are simple inserted curse words and things like that – anything a machine can understand.
And then people also have their own personalized “watch lists.” That means whatever topic you may be interested in, and have a little bit of knowledge about, or is something you want to learn more about – you can put all of those articles on your watch list. For example, my hobby, strangely enough, is entries related to the members of the House of Lords in the UK. So any change that comes [on that topic], I’ll see it, not necessarily within five minutes. With a lot of things that may not be simple vandalism, but a little more tricky, there’ll be community members who work in that area who will see it come in and deal with it accordingly.
As for protection, when an article is “protected,” no one can edit it except for administrators, but by convention they don’t edit except to remove egregious vandalism. “Semi-protected” just means you have to sign up, and have an account for four days [before you can make changes]. That’s just to cut down drive-by pranks and vandalism on articles where it’s common.
Which articles is it common for? Very famous people. In my case, I’m not very famous, but within the Wikipedia context, of course, I’m well-known. So if my article is unlocked, it’ll attract a lot of stupid edits, pranks or whatever. And so it’s normally semi-protected.
Were you staggered by people’s altruism, by people’s readiness to give of their passion and of their time? Did you anticipate this?
The level of people’s generosity is higher than I would have thought. But part of how I came to this thing in the first place was that I was on the Internet from 1989, before the Web, and I was astonished at how accessible university professors were – even famous ones at big universities. If you sent them an e-mail and you sounded sensible, they would write you back. Lots of people were giving lots of their time, and not out of a sense of altruism. You have to be interesting, and people will talk to you.
I had a very long dialogue for a few years with a philosophy professor at Brown. We had made friends on a mailing list and we basically talked every day. Long e-mails. I learned a lot from him. We had really interesting conversations. And I realized after a couple of years, the volume of e-mail, we had written a book, at least. I said, “Wow, this is interesting. This guy – because he finds me interesting or we’re friends or whatever – is willing to one-on-one tutor me, you might say, for this long period of time. That is remarkable.”
That kind of spirit where it’s interesting for someone – it’s also a benevolent thing to do – a young student writing you every day – you do it. I think there’s a lot of that in people. When we set up Wikipedia, we provided a place and way for people to do that kind of thing.
In the early days, before Wikis and also before a lot of other software developments that we have today, the Internet seemed like an incredibly hostile place. You would get the impression that about 3 percent of the people in the world are sane and normal, and 97% are raging lunatics. That’s not really true. But the design of the software didn’t allow any centralized way of moderating anything, which meant the worst people, the worst, loudest voices, dominated.
Today you don’t see a lot of racist ranting on Facebook because if people do it, they just get blocked. I would see it no more than once, because you would say, “What is this? I’m blocking it.” Now that people have better controls and they are more human controls, in the sense that they take into account how people really want to interact with each other, it makes it possible for more benevolent people to have a voice. Just as in the real world, 99.9% of the people are perfectly decent, nice people, and one in a thousand is extremely annoying and you have to deal with that. Most people are basically good.
So now talk to me about how Wikipedia is unfolding in this region – languages, articles, usage.
As I said, we just passed 120,000 articles in Hebrew. There’s a bit more than that in Arabic. (A little over 140,000 articles as of February.) We have minority languages as well. We have, of all things, Yiddish. A Yiddish Wikipedia. It’s small, but it’s there. Israel has been very strong in Wikipedia, particularly on the per capita basis. The readership is very high of both English and Hebrew Wikipedia. Other languages as well.
What about the neighborhood – Palestinians, Syrians, Egypt...?
Those would be working in Arabic Wikipedia. We carve up the world according to language, not according to countries. Sometimes I get an email, you know, “When will you create a Canadian Wikipedia?”
As soon as Canadians start to speak a different language?
(Laughs) Canadian is not that different from English actually, and it’s really close to American!
Because we view the world that way, we don’t necessarily always know [where we’re being read], whether it’s Syria, Lebanon and so on. We’ve had problems with Syria, with censorship. Wikipedia is intermittently blocked in Syria. In most of the rest of the region Wikipedia is not blocked, although in some areas there’s filtering. They’ll filter out certain pages. I’m curious to know what the current situation is in Tunisia, but for a time they definitely were filtering out articles relating to certain opposition political figures or bloggers they don’t like. They would definitely suppress that information.
We don’t participate in censorship, ever. We’ve taken a principled, strong stand against it. But we can’t stop them if they’re filtering their own network. There’s no way for us to stop them.
Do you know whether governments have tried to impact content on Wikipedia?
If it happens, it’s only in the most minimal way. You can spin a conspiracy theory that maybe someone who’s editing is working for the government – the government’s ministry of propaganda. But we don’t have any proof of that and generally we don’t have any real reason strongly to suspect that.
Are there enough safeguards simply by weight of numbers, or is it maybe that you’re not important enough for the intelligence ministry of Syria, for example, to mount a systematic effort to produce pleasant Wikipedia pages?
I don’t think it’s about sheer numbers. It’s about tools in the hands of the community members and it is about diligent, very thoughtful people monitoring things and being willing to block, to challenge. Numbers help obviously.
In terms of not important enough, I hope they think that, but they’re wrong. Obviously. In most places, Wikipedia is the fifth-to-10th ranked website and in most cases we would have more traffic than the major newspapers combined. So people do come to us – not for news – there is a component of that – but for background information, for history and things like that. It is important.
Would you call it the building blocks of their worldview?
Yes, something like that. For example, in Arabic in this region, there’ll be enough people from different countries, who are the Wikipedians, and they do come from different places and if they see something going on [to a Wikipedia page] from Syria and it’s all [positive] about the Syrian regime, [Wikipedians in] the other countries around will say, “That’s ridiculous. Where are your sources?” There are safeguards.
Nothing’s perfect. I can’t say no CIA agent has ever edited Wikipedia. When you edit [Wikipedia pages] and you’re not logged in, it shows your IP number. So several years ago, a guy wrote a software program called WikiScanner to very quickly do lookups, to see if an organization had ever edited Wikipedia. And it emerged that there had been quite a few edits from the CIA and [some people] said, “Oh, oh dear, what is the CIA doing?” It turns out that just like everybody else they are editing articles about The Brady Bunch on their lunch hour. They are supposed to be working. So the real scandal is they are doing [edits to the page on] American Idol. Not trying to control [Wikipedia], just goofing off at work.
There’s a mainstream narrative in this country that we feel that we want peace and that we’d love to have a partner and we’re not sure that we have a partner, and we wish the world would better understand this. We’re in a region where people are rising up against their governments. We’re in a region where social media is enabling mass mobilization of people, which is potentially going to affect Israel. We’ve already had two days of protests at our borders recently. How do you see the whole social media aspect of the Internet in an Israeli context? What should we be doing, learning, paying attention to?
I’m very optimistic about the Arab Spring phenomenon. I’m nervous about it, as anybody should be, could be, but generally optimistic. I dream of a day when in Libya they are organizing Facebook protests about the price of cottage cheese. That’s where you want to be in society. It’s a serious subject. Citizens’ participation in actual issues that matter to them, that aren’t about “Stop shooting us.” I’m optimistic that in these failed or failing Arab states there will be improvement based on this.
For Israel, I think one of the really important things that comes out of this is this idea that we’re in an era where person-to-person communication is more powerful than it used to be by a very wide margin, and broadcast communication is correspondingly less powerful. So there’s a real opportunity for very personal ambassadorship back and forth as people make friends by speaking English or Arabic or Hebrew, so that people can come more to understand each other on a personal level.
I had a strange experience recently. I met a young woman in Saudi Arabia who seemed quite progressive, and then on her Facebook status she wrote something unbelievably offensive about Jews. What was interesting about it was she has other friends overseas. I confronted her about it. Other people agreed with me and there was a certain type of correction that happened because she has friends overseas that might not have happened within a culture itself, where people don’t necessarily speak out against a dominant idea, even if it’s wrong.
That kind of personal ambassadorship, where you’re changing one mind at a time and looking for ways to look forward, but you’re also thinking of the other person as a person, not just as an other – that is something that is not controllable. There is nothing to do top down about it, though you can encourage it in various kinds of initiatives. That’s just really powerful. Really interesting.
That’s a very benevolent take. By the same token you can use the greater capacity to communicate directly and individually to promulgate the most awful messages...
But when you look at the capacity to do that, the sheer mini to mini-ness of it is a certain averaging factor, as compared to the top-down controlled press that you would see in Saudi Arabia for example.
When I was in Saudi Arabia recently I made very strong remarks. I was actually surprised – I shouldn’t have been; I didn’t do enough homework – when I gave my lecture, that the women were in a different room listening in. And I just said that this is incredibly offensive and quite backwards, and I’m sorry to have to say that.
They asked me about some efforts we’re doing in India, and about what’s next. And I said one of the things is we’re considering different regions of the world to open offices to support the local language communities, and one of the communities of interest that we may get to next year would be the Arabic community. We think it’s an important language and we’d like to give more support to the Arabic-speaking community and we’ll open an office somewhere. And they said, well, what about Saudi Arabia? And I said, no, because of the human rights situation it would be impossible.
You said this in your talk in Saudi Arabia?
No, in an interview there. You can go and look up the story: The headline is: Jimmy Wales considers office in Saudi Arabia. (The online Saudi Gazette indeed has a headline declaring “Wikipedia chief hints at office” in the kingdom, and reports: “Answering a question, Wales said opening an office in Saudi Arabia is also a possibility. ‘We are even exploring possibilities of opening an office in Saudi Arabia, which can help Wikipedia to enhance its Arabic content,’ Wales said.) And so there’s this, “Yay for our tech industry. We’re attracting talent from around the world.” I’m like, absolutely [not]! This is ridiculous. I complained. They didn’t even answer me.
You might not get invited to Saudi Arabia again...
I don’t know. Maybe I would. It’s diverse.
Where else have you been in the region?
Egypt, Jordan. I got invited to go to Syria once, but it got canceled, unfortunately. I’ve got two passports, because I have tons of Israeli stamps in my passport...
Let me ask you, finally, about my profession, about where you think current affairs coverage is going on the Internet?
We’re moving toward a more participatory era in journalism. People who imagine, though, that citizen journalism is going to take over, are mistaken.
There was a guy at the BBC who described this in a beautiful analogy: If you look at Wikipedia, and you think of it as a city, so you create skyscrapers in the city. And here are the people. They’re all in there. They’re living in there. They’re hammering. They’re building the city. But if you look at any major newspaper website, again, there are beautiful skyscrapers and cities. But here are the people, [outside] on little ladders at the bottom, which is the comment boards.
The idea that newspapers have had of participation by the public has been really limited to just the comment boards. My favorite bad example of comment boards is that I coauthored an editorial for The Wall Street Journal about cybercivility – civility online, improving political discourse, that sort of thing. (“Keep a civil cybertongue,” December 2009.) And the Wall Street Journal is quite an intelligent paper, with quite an affluent and educated audience. But on the comments board, by the fourth and fifth comments people were screaming at each other about Bush and Obama who, by the way, we didn’t mention. It started with someone saying, you know, yet another Obama [supporter] who wants to censor the Internet. Then, what do you mean Obama? Bush is the one who... This had nothing to do with what I’d said. It’s an example of what I was talking about: Not a very elevated discourse.
I think there is an opportunity for some hybrid models, where we recognize the value of the professional journalist, doing things that professional journalists do well, but are also no longer condescending about what the public can do. That we recognize there are really good, really thoughtful people in the community who would love to participate in the journalistic process, who we can identify through social mechanisms – much like we have at Wikipedia. There are participatory models; people can vote on things, people can discuss things, somebody becomes an administrator.
For example, in sports. So you’re a major newspaper in Israel and you can cover the major sports but there are loads of minor things, high school football matches and so on. You don’t have the resources to cover every little event. But there are passionate community folks who would love to do it, and who could do so in an objective manner. You would have to build a social culture of following things like this.
What that does for you is it generates a huge number of page views on things that people are interested in. It fills a niche. It puts your brand in front of people. And it also frees up your journalists to go do more important things.
We have the ability, as we hand off as much to people in the community as we can, to then have journalists/community leaders coordinating the work of lots of people.
Arianna Huffington’s model is interesting but I think it doesn’t go far enough in the sense that, again, if I go on to the Huffington Post, well, I can read stories and comment at the bottom. There is really not any way for me to participate and become part of the editorial process.
I don’t know all the answers, but I think that’s the direction that journalism is going to go.
On October 1, 2004, in my first column on this page as the new editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, I celebrated the newspaper’s editorial independence and vowed not to tie the Post to one or other political party or politician. Rather, I promised, the Post, a repository of many fine journalistic minds, would try to use its combined brainpower to formulate positions on the key issues of the day that we believed best served the well-being of Israel and the Jewish people. Under my editorship, I wrote, “We may be hard to pigeon-hole. So much the better.”
I wrote, too, that I regarded it as “an immense responsibility to be editing The Jerusalem Post at this fragile juncture in the short history of modern Israel.” We face daily dangers, and challenges to our very legitimacy around the world, I noted, but the greatest threat to our existence, I suggested, “stems from internal hatreds, from an absence of moderation in our domestic climate of debate. With that in mind, as today’s Israel agonizes over which policies will ensure a secure, predominantly Jewish and democratic entity,” I promised, “I will do my utmost to ensure that the Post serves as a platform for a wide range of opinion pieces, constructive dialogue drawn from across the political spectrum.”
Finally, I wrote, The Jerusalem Post is conscious that you, our readers, come to this paper to learn the details of Israel’s daily development, and make personal, business and all manner of other decisions based on what you read here. Therefore, I concluded, “we will strive to maintain the highest reporting standards, with coverage and analysis as informative and fair-minded as we can make it.”
After almost seven fulfilling years, as we announced in the paper two weeks ago, I have decided to move on, and this is my last column as editor-in-chief. I hope you will feel that I honored those commitments I made to you in October 2004. I know that my colleague and friend Steve Linde, who I am delighted is taking over from me, shares my passion for our profession and my respect for our readers.
Shabbat shalom.
– David Horovitz