This week, the future of journalism was deemed to be a media venture called Punchbowl, whose name derives from the Secret Service’s code word for the Capitol Building. As it turns out, the Secret Service has many cryptonyms for many things, which are all published very publicly online and used for no real purpose other than, supposedly, tradition. The Senate office building is called “pork chop.” Joe Biden was recently christened “Celtic.” It all seems to be an exercise in Washington cinematics, an opportunity for federal law enforcement to bask in useless mystique. So obviously, the latest and flashiest Washington media startup has named itself this.
Punchbowl is one of those tangled and circular D.C. news-and-events companies, whose sources are sure to be those same guests that glide through the VIP parties it throws. It was launched this week by celebrity reporters—Politico alums—the latest high profile journalists to abandon ship and strike out on their own. They plan to cover Capitol Hill, that known news desert, via thrice-daily newsletters. I signed up for it this week, which turned out to be good timing. A note at the top of Wednesday’s midday edition emphasized that it was “presented by Walmart” (the morning editions, in turn, seem to mostly be sponsored by Facebook). Advertisements for the company were sprinkled among hurried depictions of the violence at the Capitol Building.
This is the sort of subscription newsletter journalism that is surging at the moment, and that is being nervously hailed as the future. It balances both on the individual personas of its authors and the corporate lattice beneath them. No one seems quite sure how to feel about it.
In 2004, the future of journalism looked like it would be Wikinews. And lately, I have been thinking about Wikinews’s failure. Wikipedia, another vestige of the open publishing movement, has carved out a stubborn corner on the internet; one of collective trust, more or less, if not truth. It has, somehow, flourished in an internet shackled by paywalls. It is staunch about its utopian vision. Writing of the website at its twentieth anniversary, Rebecca Panovka hesitates to paint it as a radical project, but, she relents, the website “does seem to do what it says it does.” That, at least, is undeniable.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had those aspirations for Wikinews, a side project for the foundation that launched in 2004. At that point, everyone wanted to “save the news,” and it seemed plausible. Everything was hanging over a precipice of information. Wales dreamed of a global collective of citizen journalists for which siloed, corporate news was no match: this would be the “unassociated press,” as the New York Times quipped at the time. Wales must have drawn inspiration from the Indymedia network, which was at its peak— it had an adjacent vision, its tagline being “don’t hate the media, be the media”—but he distanced his own venture from Indymedia’s more radical, grassroots politics. Through crowdsourced facts and built-in transparency, Wikinews would dig at a neutral, authoritative, and immediate truth.
It has not done that. While on occasion producing an original report or two, Wikinews never gained steam and, very obviously, has not become a news source of record, because it does not cover most news. The coverage that does materialize is perplexing: On average it publishes something like one short article a week; the latest was about a professional wrestler dying. In October, the site scored an interview with none other than Jo Jorgensen, and asked her the softest of softball questions (who’s your favorite U.S. president?) without touching on, say, her conviction that the free market is an appropriate substitute for a mask mandate.
Hailed seventeen years ago as the “next generation” of online news, Wikinews is just feebly alive. Almost all articles written on the site are reviewed by a single user—Pi Zero—which has been, it appears, the case for many years; in 2012, a Wikimedia proposal to end Wikinews also noted that it was lone Pi Zero who reviewed most articles. “This was an experiment that failed,” the proposal reads. Such suggestions are brushed aside by the oft-repeated Wiki mantra: “If you are unhappy with the content being written, you can remedy this situation by writing content.” And what can you say to that?
There are reasons that Wikinews failed where Wikipedia succeeded: a newsroom is fundamentally a different endeavor than an encyclopedia, and perhaps more difficult to crowdsource via volunteer labor. Still, there is a fundamental appeal, an easy logic to Wikinews’ unrealized tagline, that “free news source you can write!” Shouldn’t news be a collective, universal project? For a moment, at least, it felt that we had all the tools we needed to build it.
There are collective models for journalism that I believe are better than Wikinews’ philosophy, which never considered the ways that good reporting is rooted in place and community, and is rarely well-served by a lofty, faux-neutral tone. Those other models, too, have persisted. There are lingering offshoots of Indymedia collectives, informed still by anti-globalization activism at the turn of the millennium; there is Unicorn Riot’s forward-looking approach to movement videojournalism. Even as Instagram brands itself ever more fervidly as a shopping experience, the platform has, for better or for worse, become an important channel for movement building and crowdsourced news. They should serve as reminders that information does not have to become packaged and hyperindividualized; that we have strayed from that vision of something else.
As the flames of democratic promise that defined the early Internet are extinguished by ever-growing monopolistic corporations, the non-profit, crowdsourced, ad-free torch of Wikipedia still burns brightly. But the free internet encyclopedia didn’t set out to be so unique or utopian. In fact, it initially aimed to be for-profit and not crowdsourced. And without those structural properties of the site, is its catalogue of facts, definitions, and explanations really so special?
If Wikipedia became radical somewhat by mistake, its most direct ancestor was an explicitly revolutionary project. The Encyclopédie, co-created by French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot and mathematician Jean le Rond d'Alembert and published in 1751, wasn’t the first catalogue of human knowledge. But it was the first to completely upend the way people conceived of the source and purpose of knowledge in the first place.
Like Wikipedia, what was radical about the Encyclopédie was not necessarily its content, but its form. In its attempt to parcel, categorize, and systematize the world in its entirety, it centered human faculties and sensory experiences. Diderot and d'Alembert wanted to reinforce the Lockean idea of knowledge coming solely through empirical contact, rather than from some preordained, divine gift. So they organized their encyclopedia by the ways in which they thought such empirical contact is accomplished—Memory, which gives rise to the discipline of History; Imagination, which inspires artistic creativity; and Reason, which relates to the discipline of Philosophy.
The Encyclopédie, published merely 38 years before the French revolution, was unsurprisingly reviled and criticized by the religious establishment and the state, who accurately suspected its influence and threat to their authority. Now it’s considered an exemplar product of the Enlightenment—one that celebrates the secular pursuit of knowledge, elevates empirical science, and centers the perspective of the individual.
But the Encyclopédie and its online descendant both have a paradox at their core. The encyclopedia’s goal of holistic enlightenment is undercut by its need to simplify and essentialize every one of its entries. No matter how you approach an encyclopedia, you will lose something in the process. You can choose to read every entry at the expense of limiting your understanding of their complexity. You can use it as an introduction to in-depth research on a few ideas, but then you miss out on the rest of the catalogue. Even while organizing itself around individual human abilities, the Encyclopédie reminds us of how deficient the human mind really is.
One of Wikipedia’s most whimsical, albeit unintended, applications is the Wikipedia game, which consists of picking a random start and end point and attempting to get from one to the other by clicking as few embedded links as possible. From passionfruit to Emperor Nero; from the 1980 Olympics to Bauhaus; from trickle-down economics to Scientology. Diderot and his collaborators, who tried their best to include the eighteenth century equivalent of hyperlinks in their entries, could only dream of such rapid revelations of the interconnectedness of all knowledge.
It’s possible that in those clicks, the sequence of which eventually leads from Wiki page A to page B, lies the encyclopedia’s greatest merit. It’s not in the words themselves, but in the invisible threads between them that are suddenly revealed to us, giving us a tiny glimpse into the delicate, infinite web of our universe.