Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What the hell is a wiki, anyway?

If you are an ADN elder, you will remember "Newsbits." This was an old file on the first ergonomically disasterous computers we ever used (see, some things DO get better....). Anyway, it was called Newsbits, and anyone could post thoughts and comments. There were often running threads of commentary as one staffer or another would get exercised about a policy or an event in the newsroom and vent and argue on Newsbits.

A wiki seems to function about the same way. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A wiki (IPA: [ˈwɪ.kiː] or [ˈwiː.kiː] [1]) is a website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove, and otherwise edit and change available content, and typically without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring. The term wiki also can refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a Web site, or to certain specific wiki sites, including the computer science site (the original wiki) WikiWikiWeb and on-line encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

In my digital journalism class, besides a requirement to blog on a specific site about readings in the class, we also participate in a wiki. I will explain more as I learn more. At this point, all I understand is that we will take our class notes on the wiki (in a classroom that includes a laptop for everyone in the class), and at week's end, a student in the class will rework (refactor is the term) everyone's notes into a whole-class version. The theory is that the collaborative effort will make the final version better than any one of our singular versions.

But, another note on wikis that relates to the turmoil newspapers find themselves in today. A newspaper in Southern California is retooling itself to be a multimedia news organization, which is requiring it to reorganize the newsroom. They are doing it with a wiki; every staffer has access. Issues that emerge in the wiki are dealt with at a once-a-week face-to-face meeting among the editor and any staffers who want to participate. Password to the wiki is ventura; the editor invited us to take a look at their process.

The Ventura County Star is the paper and it has a 100-person newsroom like the Anchorage Daily News. About 7 months ago, they committed to going multimedia. The editor left an empty position vacant to purchase four video cameras and four laptops with the accompanying software. Their commitment came from being beaten on a big local story. A California wildfire broke out near them; a blogger located near the fire set up shop and started blogging. Soon locals knew the best place to go for up-to-date fire info was this guy's blog. Badly stung, the paper made a commitment to go multimedia. In a more recent fire, which they handled as a multimedia event, the first images they posted were not their own, but those of readers who got to the fire before any news media could.

The editor said the initial investment was $65,000 for the equipment mentioned above, and the time of a multimedia reporter named Jane Stewart to come in and work with the staff. Their strategy was to offer multimedia training -- 8 staffers at a time for six weeks at a time. While being trained, they were freed from their normal duties so they could concentrate on learning multimedia reporting (video, audio, editing of same, and creation of a web site and placing the media on the website). Training is optional, not mandatory. Now, they have 24 newsroom staffers trained in multimedia reporting. They have temporarily stopped the training to catch up with newsroom reorganization issues. Basically, with 24 multimedia-trained reporters busy producing, they need to reorganize the newsroom for a better flow of content online.

Their first efforts, by their own admission, were beginner in nature. They learned by doing, and explained to their readers that this was their approach. Here is a multimedia story that appeared online in one form and in the newspaper in traditional story form. It is about teen females being moved out of a detention center because of the expense of running it. Take a look.