The Policy Wiki: A social experiment

After about 15 years writing about business and technology for both the print and the online versions of the Globe and Mail, I moved into a newly-created job a few months ago as the Globe’s “Communities Editor.” It’s still evolving, but in a nutshell my job involves thinking about, developing and implementing new ways of interacting with our readers online, as well as helping to improve some of the ways in which we already do that — such as the comment feature on our news stories, which we were one of the first newspapers in North America to offer, but which needs some additional features in order for it to be truly useful.

As part of that mandate, I helped launch a site called the Public Policy Wiki several weeks ago. A joint venture between the paper and the Dominion Institute (a non-profit agency dedicated to improving the dialogue about public policy in Canada), it’s a combination of a traditional wiki — that is, a publicly-editable resource similar to Wikipedia — and a public discussion forum, with comments and voting features as well. In many ways, it’s a kind of social-media mashup aimed at pulling in suggestions from readers and other concerned Canadians about public policy issues (the Obama administration has also experimented with this kind of idea).

Right from the beginning, the Wiki was designed to be an experiment — something we could learn from, and get ideas for future projects involving social media of all kinds. My approach was to adopt something similar to the “rapid prototying” approach used by many online technology startups: get something out the door in beta, and see what happens. Of course, as many people who have worked at newspapers probably know, this isn’t exactly the kind of thing that traditional media entities are used to doing — not to mention the fact that the last time a newspaper experimented with a wiki (the Los Angeles Times in 2005) it ended rather badly.

Nevertheless, with the help of some open-minded editors and developers, we managed to pull the project together fairly quickly, using the off-the-shelf wiki software called TikiWiki. If I could give any other newspaper editor or staffer working on a similar experiment one piece of advice, it would be this: hold onto the idea of what you want to do and charge forward relentlessly, and get something out the door as quickly as you can, despite the inevitable roadblocks that will be thrown up by some of your paper’s senior editors and IT people. If someone comes up with a reason why you can’t or shouldn’t do something, find a way around them and do it anyway.

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

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