June 17, 2006

Struggling New York Times revises its 'fit to print' policy

The lead story on the front page of today's NY Times is Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy. Typically, this slot is reserved for articles that are, you know, newsworthy. So what's the big story here? It boils down to this: 82 out of the 1.2 billion million entries -- .0068 percent -- on Wikipedia are protected to prevent vandalism, meaning that only administrators can change them. An additional 179 entries -- .0149 percent -- are semi-protected, meaning that only people who have been registered for at least four days can change them. Most protected and semi-protected entries are released back into the wild after "a few days," once the revert wars have cooled off.

That's newsworthy? Don't answer yet, because you can't spell 'news' without 'new' and what the article obscures is that these protections aren't. The fully protected category has existed from the very beginning of Wikipedia. The semi-protected category is a more recent development, put vaguely at "early this year" (if you read carefully you'll see that this means January -- five months ago)

The only acknowledgement of this is the statement, "But Mr. Wales dismissed such criticism, saying there had always been protections and filters on the site." Usually when something is factual, a newspaper will state is a fact; by couching it as a claim of an interested party -- a counter-claim, in fact, as it comes in response to criticism by another party -- its weight is diminished.

As for those criticisms, they can be found here and the hysterical quality of them reveals the true attitude lurking behind the Times' calm demeanor. I'm not a huge Wikipedia booster -- I think of it as a search tool for pointing me in the direction of accurate information rather than a source of accurate information itself -- but to call one very minor change "the death of Wikipedia" is bizarre. In any event, while the debate about how open a Wiki should be is certainly worth having and possibly of interest to a handful of web geeks, it's hard to see how it merits above-the-fold A1 coverage in the Times, even on a Saturday.

Dinosaur media conspiracy version of events: The paper's editors find this tidbit floating around on the blogosphere and say, Ah-ha! Here's our chance to kill off a competitor once and for all. They claim their model is better, but now they quietly admit that they need the same kind of editorial control we have. Old media wins!

More realistic hack journalism version of events, based on the fact that there is a reasonable amount of actual, if not exactly exciting, information about the business and future of Wikipedia in the article: Writer Katie Hafner prepares a typical company profile story for the business section. An editor spots the bit about semi-protection somewhere around paragraph 10 and says, "Isn't this big news?" Hafner explains that it's not. "It sounds like front page news to me," says the editor who has never looked at Wikipedia in his life. "Did you say front page?" says Hafner, who quickly retools the story to give it a new spin.

I'm not sure which version is more pathetic, but I can guarantee this: even though this story is months old at best, now that it's on the front page of the Times, you're going to see rewrites of it in every media outlet in the country.

To the extent that anybody wants to know my take on the "issue" behind this story, I see it pretty clearly as a battle between ideologues and pragmatists, and as usual, I lean pragmatic. Wikipedia wants to be a useful encyclopedia, while its critics would rather have a pure Wiki at all costs. It's like hardcore libertarians vs. liberal democrats, and frankly, it's pretty clear that this market, at least, need some regulations.

Update: Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales rewrites the hed and lede:

Wikipedia Becomes More Open

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that ‘anyone can edit,’ and this has become more true in recent months. In past years, Wikipedia was sometimes forced to protect some articles from editing, but recent software and policy development has allowed for articles which would have formerly been protected to be open for editing.

Wales adds: "I keep looking at the New York Times site, looking for the 'edit this page' button to correct the errors."

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Misplaced decimal point. 1.2 *million* articles.

Thank you.

This is absolutley the best and most perfect analysis of this story that I have seen so far. You got it all exactly right as far as I can see.

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