It depends on what your definition of "news" is.
When Wikipotentate Jimmy Wales announced at SXSW on Sunday that his spinoff commercial site Wikia would become a news provider, no doubt many ears pricked up -- and vice versa. The Wikiverse already has breathtaking reach, so suddenly there may be a new sheriff in town.
OK, maybe not sheriff, but hired gun.
OK, maybe not hired gun, but amateur gun.
Because that’s the way Wales rolls. Wikipedia is the most comprehensive compendium of up-to-date knowledge assembled at gargantuan scale almost entirely by volunteers. It works, too, because they form a huge community that for reasons of camaraderie, rivalry, vanity, purity and sometimes just deep suspicion constantly monitor and vet one another’s work. There are flaws in the process, but each entry is a living organism that matures and self-corrects over time.
Bear that in mind. You’ll need to remember it in just a moment.
So let us think about Wikia, which at the moment is one of the genius creations of the ad-supported world. Think of it as Entertainment Weekly meets Reddit. It features expansive coverage of movies, TV, gaming, comics and so on, contributed by some of the most informed, passionate, utterly immersed experts in the world: fans.
Just for instance, there are 947 pages on Kung Fu Panda.
Cost to Wikia for that content: $0.
Now, in a world in which advertising will no longer cover the nut for publishers, there are two ways to keep the lights on. One is to find more revenue sources. The other is to pay less for content. Let’s say you can hire some rich trustifarian to labor full time in your digital-publishing startup for $26,000 a year, focusing on all matters Kung Fu Panda. Now let’s run the numbers.
Yep. $0 is less than $26,000. It is $26,000 less. And there are more than 360,000 Wikia communities. So is that $9 billion worth of free content? No.
Or maybe. It depends on what your definition of “content” is. In Kung Fu Panda Holiday, Viper mentioned how she used to love cooking with her sisters during the holidays, indicating that she enjoyed spending time with them. Since she was the first-born of her parents, it is likely that they are younger siblings.
Now the idea of monetizing volunteered content is hardly new. At least 99% of the Internet is put up by amateurs. Apart from Wikipedia, there is notably Huffington Post, Forbes, FunnyorDie.com, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and many trade and niche publications, including the one you are reading now.
Here it is worth noting another fact about the Internet. While 99% of the stuff on there is free, 99% of it also sucks. The Venn Diagram looks like one circle printed slightly out of register. Which brings me back to Wikia, the news organization. How lovely would it be that the crowdsourcing of news to amateurs could be wikified or otherwise outsourced to the crowd. I can tell you that my pal Jeff Jarvis over at City University of New York would levitate with excitement.
Me, too, actually -- so long as the news were not limited to typhoons and terrorist attacks and other on-the-spot opportunities but also state houses, school boards, municipal authorities and other corridors of government that have been liberated by media-economy chaos to operate in the shadows. Dude, I’d dance a jig.
The question is: will Wikia’s 750 volunteers (so far) have the access, the attention span and the basic skills to do what trained professional journalists do? And will there be enough of them? And will the process be poisoned by ideology, as so much “professional” journalism has? At the moment, there is little incentive for a Wikian to vandalize a post. Exchange the words “Kung Fu” for “redistricting plan” and what do you get?
Well, either way, it’s panda-monium.