And why not a wiki?: Blogosphere lights up over 'wikitorials'

[Let’s get to the disclaimers right away, rather than burying them at the end, after you’ve read the piece: OJR Editor Robert Niles is a former member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and newspaper editorial writer. He also has worked as a Senior Producer at and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.]

Let’s back off Michael Kinsley, okay?

The L.A. Times Opinion Editor and his staff have been catching heck from some writers after Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martinez announced last week that The Times would introduce “‘wikitorials’ — an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.”

“This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet,” The New York Times’ Stacy Schiff declared. “Let’s hope the interactive editorial will lead directly to the interactive tax return. On the other hand, I hope we might stop short before we get to structural engineering and brain surgery. Some of us like our truth the way we like our martinis: dry and straight up.”

Cute, but Schiff’s dig assumes the pros always get it right. Let’s just say that if structural engineers showed the same skepticism toward their work as many professional editorial writers showed toward the U.S. administration’s claims about Iraq, I’d be choosing the ferry instead of the bridge whenever I needed to cross a river.

Talk of wikis inevitably elicit rants about Wikipedia, the free-for-all dictionary where users can create and revise entries, even to the point of rewriting history. Neither Martinez nor Kinsley have publicly revealed details of how their “wikitorials” will work. But the Wikipedia model need not be the only one to guide wiki publishers.

  • At OJR, we restrict editing access on our wikis to our registered users, who must provide a working e-mail address to register.
  • A news publisher could limit write access on the wiki to an invited group of readers with first-hand experience on a topic.
  • Or, a publisher could adopt an “open source journalism” model, opening a wiki to revision for a limited time, with an editor stitching together the best evidence and arguments from its versions for later print publication.

    “We are no longer couch potatoes absorbing whatever mass media many funnel our way,” OJR Senior Editor J.D. Lasica writes in his new book, “Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.” “We make our own media. In many ways, we are our own media.”

    So why not try something different to engage the digital generation?

    Despite the protests, what The Times has proposed is not all that radical a change. On a limited scale, newspaper editorial writing shares much in common with wikis. Both are collective efforts, reflecting the view of a group of writers, rather than that of an individual. And both strive to report an enduring truth that rises encompasses more than just a single point of view.

    While Schiff lambasted reader participation in the editorial process, Timothy Noah at Kinsley’s old site, Slate, suggested that Kinsley abolish editorials at The Times altogether, arguing that papers ought to expand op-ed columns into the editorial page space.

    “The genre has certain built-in defects,” Noah wrote. “One is that editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I’ve ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible.”

    Having spent a few years’ of my life on an editorial page staff, I will not dispute Noah’s pessimistic view of the craft. Too many editorials stink. But a great many columns and traditional news stories die on the page, too.

    Too much traditional journalism amounts to little more than stenography. If a source fails to provide an appropriate conclusion, the reporter will not draw it – even if all necessary supporting evidence is there.

    Editorial writing not only allows conclusions, it demands them. Great editorial writers work like appellate court judges, weighing available evidence in the context of past decisions. Yet they must write for more than attorneys and scholars. Their words must engage and inspire an entire community to appropriate action.

    Yes, most editorial writers fail by those standards. That’s because too many publishers treat the editorial page as a dumping ground for aging reporters, or, worse, a private forum to do favors for or settle scores with the paper’s sources. Either way, readers don’t matter.

    Trashing the editorial page to give newshole to columnists won’t change that attitude. Nor will it give journalists, including opinion writers, additional resources to do more reporting.

    News publishers would do better to refresh their editorial pages with innovations that draw more readers into the process of crafting this institutional voice. Why rely on the limited knowledge and reporting resources of a handful of editorial writers when you could ask your entire community to gather and examine evidence?

    Sure, some papers ask established community leaders to sit in on an editorial board meeting now and then. Yawn. Declining readership and diminished influence demand a more aggressive response.

    What news publishers need is a tool that will allow any interested readers a seat at the table, with the ability to help direct what ought to be their community’s most powerful voice.

    Something like, oh, say, a wiki.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. bright young says:

      I pay more attention to the word “enpower”. No matter what forms we will take, I think it is most important for media to offer people a plat to express themselves. In this way, to enpower is an urgent task for all the media and people.

    2. The first wikitorial is up. It’s off the main server, using MediaWiki software. A seperate registration is required (even for folks who have already registered with LAT. Ugh.) As of 8:45 this morning (LA time) there have been about 40 edits, with the result that the current version is far more aggressive (and anti-administration) than the original.

    3. After an intriguing start, The Times shut down the feature over the weekend “because a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material.”


      1. If you want high-quality material, you cannot allow users to post anonymously. A registration system must require verification (such as e-mail or credit card) and encourage or require people to post under their real names. The Times had such a registration system in place, but the paper did not do the extra work to have the wiki registration system synch with the paper’s.
      2. There must be some cost, even if trivial, to the reader for posting inappropriate or offensive information. Coordinating with the paper’s registration system would have allowed the paper at least to boot offending readers from the entire website. If a registration system includes a credit card verification, the paper could take legal action against the offenders.
      3. Little works well on its first installation. Successful Web publishers learn, then try again. And again. This is social networking, something that most people take a lifetime to learn well offline.
      4. Another possible solution? Limit each registrant to one edit. Make your statement, then move on.
      5. Anyone who calls this a failure is letting opinion get in the way of one, very important fact: When was the last time anyone spilled this much ink (and bandwidth) over a newspaper editorial?
    4. Robert– Fortunately at your other site you quite clearly distinguish success from failures. CJR’s Brian Montopoli nails it, handily dropping off an 850-word analysis. To wit:

      “But though the occasional failure is inevitable in the quest for innovation, we can’t figure out why, exactly, anyone thought the Wikitorial even had a chance at success.”

      Otherwise, your suggestions here are good, of course, but I suppose you might have come out ahead had you posted them before the experiment…

    5. The article, and its options for running a wiki, was posted before the wikitorials launched.

      Again, the wikitorial was a resounding success in reenergizing what had become a somewhat tired publishing format. And had The Times taken the Programming 101 step of not allowing img tags in its edits, there’d have been no crippling ethical problem with continuing.

    6. Yes, correct, forgive me for chomping at the electronic bit here. You gave some advice in the original post: what can be done. Your response was worded much more forcefully: what not to do.

      I think that the OJ effort would be a bit healthier if a resource were published Mistakes you shouldn’t make.

    7. Actually, we’ve some articles coming up soon on managing online communities and reader content that I hope all OJR readers will find enlightening.

      And to extend my last comment: Obviously, the LAT effort failed when they took it down. And the LAT planted the seeds for its failure when they took a naive approach toward setting up its registration and user input capabilities. The LAT lost the immensive momentum it had at launch by not anticipating bad behavior and having software procedures in place to head it off. But the upside in the momentum it did generate by trying this ought to encourage second, better efforts by both the LAT and other papers.

    8. Yes, indeed. A lot more learned from a big failure than a small one. Of course, as I’ve learned through OJR, there are many small experiments going on through the country, and the LAT would be wise to learn from them– with a little help from their friends in the journo-institutes.

    9. Richard Rockman says:

      Mr. Niles, it’s too bad that the LAT’s wikexperiment lived such a short life. I hope that it reappears soon. After all, the designated hitter in baseball is still frowned upon by purists of the game.