LA Times ‘wikitorial’ gives editors red faces

This is quite funny, and serves as a warning to any organisation jumping in feet first to a new technology without fully considering the likely implications.

It was the boldest of innovations. A chance for the mainstream media to strike back against the upstarts of the online world. On Friday the Los Angeles Times – an unwieldy broadsheet newspaper – launched its “wikitorial”, an interactive device allowing readers to contribute to and rewrite its editorial column.
“Do you see fatuous reasoning, a selective reading of the facts, a lack of poetry?” asked an introductory article in the paper. “Well, what are you going to do about it? You could send us an e-mail … But today you have a new option: Rewrite the editorial yourself.”

Trumpeting the experiment as “a constantly evolving collaboration among readers in a communal search for truth”, the paper admitted that it faced potential disaster: “Like an arthritic old lady who takes to the dance floor … the Los Angeles Times is more likely to break a hip than to be hip. We acknowledge that possibility.”

At the end of a 1,000-word editorial about the war in Iraq, online readers were invited to “Click here to Wiki this morning’s editorial”.

But by Sunday, readers were met with the following statement: “Where is the wikitorial? Unfortunately, we have had to remove this feature, at least temporarily, because a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material.”

Hot and flustered, the arthritic old lady had left the dance floor.

The wikitorial took its lead from the website, an encyclopaedia on the internet written by volunteers. The name comes from the Hawaiian term “wiki wiki”, meaning quick or informal.

The wikitorial started with the first users posting modest amendments to the editorial just hours after its publication.

By early morning, readers were inserting a tone that was more shrill than the high-minded balance of the original: “The Bush administration should be publicly charged and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

At 9am, the editorial was erased by a reader and substituted with another. Bizarrely, the new version echoed the position of the original.

By mid-morning, the editorial had been replaced by the more reductive “Fuck USA”.

By lunchtime, the founder of Wikipedia got in on the act, “forking” the editorial into two pieces, representing opposing viewpoints.

“I’m proposing this page as an alternative to what is otherwise inevitable, which is extensive editing of the original to make it neutral … which would be fine for Wikipedia, but would not be an editorial,” wrote Jimbo Wales, who advised the paper on its experiment.

At 4am the paper’s managing editor got a call from the office. Explicit images known as “goatses” had appeared on the wikitorial page. The experiment was terminated.

But the paper remains undaunted. “As long as we can hit a high standard and have no risk of vandalism, then it is worth having a try at it again,” managing editor Rob Barrett said.

Michael Kinsley, opinion editor of the LA Times and the founder of the online magazine Slate, defended the wikitorial. “It’s a cool thing, this wiki business and you think there’s got to be some way it’s useful,” he said. “I thought, what the heck, let’s do it.”

The wikitorial, with modifications, will probably return, he said. “We said it was an experiment. We were embarrassed a bit, but we took it down and we’ll come right back.”

The old lady just can’t keep away from the bright lights.