Interview with Sue Gardner of the Wikimedia Foundation

This article mentions the Wikimedia Foundation, one of its projects, or people related to it. Wikinews is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sue Gardner of the Wikimedia Foundation

Wikinews reporters interviewed Sue Gardner, an employee of the Wikimedia Foundation, the project that runs Wikipedia and several other projects, including Wikinews.

Before coming to Wikimedia, she ran CBC.CA, the website of Canada's national public broadcaster. She was also a radio and television journalist for 10 years.


Matt: Hi Sue, could you explain what you do for the Wikimedia Foundation?

Sue Gardner: Sure. I am a consultant & special advisor to the board. Essentially, I am here to help the organization professionalize and improve. It's a young organization with a lot of normal 'young-organization' challenges—and I am here to help fix them.

Matt: What was your job position for, and what did you work on while you were there?

SG: I was senior director of CBC.CA. (That means I ran it.) Do you want me to explain a little about what it is?

Dodge: Please do

SG: It's the website of the Canadian public broadcaster, the only national public broadcaster in Canada and the equivalent to the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the French pubcaster. etc. CBC is mainly a news organization, and CBC.CA is mainly a news website.

Dodge: How did you come to work for the Wikimedia Foundation? Were you asked to join by someone? And if so, who?

SG: I actually first got interested in the Wikimedia Foundation in a serious way, when I saw it do such a good job on the Virginia Tech story. On the morning of the Virginia Tech massacre, I was following the story on Wikipedia/Wikinews, and reading the talk page. And it was a really excellent level of conversation that was being had there. I was really seriously impressed. So I started doing a little reading about the organization, which resulted in me talking with Brad Patrick [then General Counsel to the Board of Trustees] and then Florence [Nibart-Devouard, Chair of the Board]. Which resulted in me coming here.

Brian: In joining WMF was there anything you brought from's policies that you feel have influenced your contributions to the foundation? Can you give Wikinews any tips? I am assuming their similar balance/neutrality policies as the BBC's

SG: Yes, I think so. CBC is an extremely thoughtful, intentional, deliberate organization. I have borrowed from it liberally thus far—our code of conduct owes something to the CBC's, as does our travel policy, travel approvals policy, reimbursement policy etc. So there are a lot of new policies here (and there will be more) that have been heavily influenced by the CBC. In terms of journalistic policy, I have had no influence on how Wikinews handles things. And Brian, you are correct that CBC's editorial policies are very similar to those of the BBC.

Matt: Have you had much to do with Wikinews during the course of your work for the Wikimedia Foundation?

SG: No, very little. I am a big supporter of Wikinews for obvious reasons. Can I talk a little bit about that?

Matt: Sure.

SG: I am very interested in Wikinews because of my background. I worked for seven years in online journalism, and spent a lot of time talking with my colleagues at other organizations about the future of online news, citizen journalism, participatory journalism etc. I am still doing some of that—next week, for example, I will be in Washington helping the Corporation for Public Broadcasting decide who to give funding for to cover the US presidential election online. So I am very interested in these issues. And I don't think that any media organization has got this figured out, even a little bit. It seems to me that Wikinews is in a very good position to make real progress on participatory news/citizen journalism, etc., because the WMF projects are extremely good at fostering collaboration. So I am watching Wikinews with a lot of interest. Yeah. I am really hoping that someone applying for funds from the CPB will propose a collaboration with Wikinews

Dodge: When the Foundation moves to San Fransisco [sic], will you be going with it?

SG: Yes

Matt: Do you believe that citizen journalism sites like Wikinews should have an editorial review process?

SG: That is a good question. I assume you mean prepublication, right?

Matt: Yeah.

SG: It's a good question, and there are good arguments on both sides. I know that Nick Denton of Gawker Media has a kind of 'shoot first ask questions later' stance—they say they value transparency and are fine to admit their mistakes and publish corrections immediately. I think in general that's the direction the media are moving in; that we would publish and correct, rather than hold off publishing. There are lots of reasons for that, and there's an interesting argument to be made that it's the most respectful stance vis-a-vis the readers.

Brian: Gawker sounds like what we do, only a lot less cautious.

SG: Yes. I like Nick Denton a lot—he is very honest and modest about the work he does. He sometimes mocks traditional media for being overly pompous

Mike: Sue, the community initiative "Conference of the Americas" is getting support from Turner Broadcasting for the citizen journalism unconference. How do you feel about the community partnering with such a big name in journalism?

SG: I don't know anything about that particular proposal for collaboration, but I am generally very much in favour of us collaborating with external entities. I have begun talking a little with a guy at CNN myself, as I think Brian knows.

Mike: The proposal is basically that Turner will give us a venue for the conference and bring in industry people to speak, in addition to more citizen-oriented speakers and our own from Wikinews. I know personally I didn't believe such a media conglomerate would want to partner with free culture, so it was surprising to me. Does it surprise you, or do you see a good working relationship between "free" and "for profit" journalism outlets?

SG: It doesn't surprise me at all that Turner would want to partner with us. I have had useful conversations with all kinds of people; the head of, the head of the BBC online, a head of programming at PBS, etc. And I know many of us are having similar conversations. People want to partner with the Wikimedia Foundation because it is extraordinarily successful and the material it creates is phenomenally relevant and useful.

Brian: we had a reporter with the beeb for a week

Dodge: And the BBC used some of our content earlier

Matt: Do you think the fact that they can reuse what we make in partnership with them is one of the reasons for people wanting to partner with us, whereas a lot of traditional media want to retain copyright on work?

SG: This is great, and it's my opinion that we should partner up with lots of organizations in lots of ways. Probably we will find the most constructive partnerships with the public sector organizations (as Brian and Thunderbird are saying, with the BBC). No, I don't think they understand the GFDL at all. And copyright is a problem for traditional media; it was my single biggest problem at the CBC, since it is so constraining and complex. I think they are interested in us because a) we are popular, and they strive for relevance/popularity all the time, and b) because we have managed to persuade people to participate in our world and to help us and work with us. Traditional media have been less successful than we have—than you have!—in creating an environment which people enjoy participating in.

Brian: If they don't understand GFDL, is CC-BY (per Wikinews) better for their legal folks?

SG: I think traditional media see copyright as a problem, and they do not understand it very well. Basically it just represents cost and complexity to them. I had a meeting with PBS the other day in which we tried to explain the GFDL to them; it makes them quite nervous.

Matt: Do you believe that (at least for non-profit news sources), releasing material into the public domain makes it simpler for them to manage/handle?

Brian: or do they not understand PD?

SG: The trouble for traditional media is, they don't own the rights to very much material. They operate inside a web of very complex agreements with multiple entities. We used to joke at the CBC that the only thing we owned was nature documentaries. And even those didn't entirely belong to us. So they are very constrained.

Brian: For wikinews all they have to do is credit us with the story to comply with the license

SG: You mean, they can use your material if they credit you, yes?

Brian: Yes, a link to us would be nice too

Matt: Yeah, as long as they state its CC-BY-2.5 and give our name, they can use it. Can users who have edited Wikinews be respected around real journalists? Will they be turned down because they have written for an online website like Wikinews, which is not particularly fond of the mainstream media, and not traditional media?

SG: First, let me say that I don't think Wikinews and the traditional/mainstream media should consider themselves at all in opposition to each other. I think they can peacefully coexist. There are some things the mainstream media are very good at, and they are also (sometimes) happy to admit their faults. And yes, I think Wikinews writers can be respected by real journalists, because the work speaks for itself. The one major challenge to that would be the collaborative authorship issue. Because as in academia, authorship is significant for professional journalists, and so I think the idea that something was collaboratively authored is hard for traditional journalists to understand.

Matt: Although you have an account on the English wikinews (User:SueGardner), you have never edited. One would assume that as a journalist you would use this project. Is there any main reason you don't edit here or do you just not have time?

SG: I am just too busy. I think there are lots of people who can do as good or better a job than I could, of editing Wikinews. But I think I am the only person who is paid to be thinking about the organization as a whole all day every day - so that's what I do.

Matt: If you could interview anyone for Wikinews who would you like to interview?

SG: Did you interview Doris Lessing?

Brian: Not yet, although we reported on her though (see Doris Lessing wins Nobel Prize for Literature)

SG: Okay. I read your Doris Lessing story, and I was thinking maybe someone had interviewed her later. For me personally, I would love to interview Doris Lessing.

Dodge: Do you use Wikinews as a primary source for news, or do you use other mainstream sources, and then look to Wikinews?

SG: I use a lot of different sources. I think it would be difficult to rely solely—or even primarily—on Wikinews, because I don't think it is yet particularly comprehensive; I don't know if it ever will be. I'd be interested to know what you think of that.

Brian: Wikinews may become comprehensive but it will be a difficult process in my opinion.

Matt: Do you think the reason for this is wikigroaning, such as more topics are written in focused areas rather than things of interest to the most people?

SG: I agree. And I'm not sure whether or not it should be a goal of the organization. Can I talk for just a second about one of the ways I think news is changing?

Brian: It is a "faster" project than Wikipedia.

SG: I have never heard of wikigroaning, what an interesting word. But it makes sense to me that Wikinews would reflect the interests of the people who edit it, which I imagine is one of the reasons it (and the other WMF projects) are successful. (Again, the relevance-to-audience issue.) But regarding news... I think it used to be the case that there was X amount of shelf space for news—like, 40 pages of newsprint daily, or 22 minutes of television time. So whether it was a busy news day or a slow news day, that was the amount of news that got created. And professional journalism is still pretty much constructed that way. So if a media outlet has a reporter in Johannesburg, they get a lot of news out of South Africa, whether or not anything particularly interested is happening there. You have x shelf space and x resources. What I think changes—theoretically—with Wikinews, is that you are freed of both those constraints. You have limitless shelf space and very flexible resources. Which means, in theory, that you can cover lots of stories when there are lots of stories to cover, and do very little, when there isn't much going on. So I think this is very interesting. And I think it has implications for the future of news. People should consume news when there's something interesting to read about. And I think Wikinews has enormous potential on big stories. I am very interested to see how that plays out.

Matt: You may be interested in What Wikinews is not, the first point, Wikinews is not Paper

SG: Yes, precisely. And when there is a big story, lots of people come here to help, I assume.

Brian: We got great cooperation on some big stories like the UK attacks, did big media notice? (Major explosions at UK oil depot, Coordinated terrorist attack hits London)

SG: Yes, exactly (re London bombings). I am not sure how noticed that was. For the mainstream media, that was when they woke up to the power of collaborative media themselves. It was certainly the wakeup call for the BBC, who made a lot of changes to their newsgathering process based on the events of that day. I think the most interesting question for Wikinews is what uniquely you can do, that no-one else can. And I think your greatest strength may lie in coverage of really large breaking news events—the [2004] tsunami, the London bombings, Virginia Tech.

Matt: A lot of attention has been given to improving Wikipedia. Do you think more attention is needed for the other projects? If so, which ones do you think need more attention?

SG: I think that in a way, that question looks at WMF through the wrong end of the telescope. I don't think the best question is 'do the other projects need more attention'—I think the best question is 'what do our readers need from us, and how can we best give it to them.' I think Wikiquotes, for example, will always be smaller than Wikipedia in terms of readership, and that's fine. Wikinews, I think, needs to chart a path that may be quite different from Wikipedia. And Commons is an entirely different beast as well. So they are all quite different, with different needs.

Dodge: What advice can you give to aspiring journalists, based on your experiences at the CBC?

SG: Hm. I think it's an incredibly exciting time to be a journalist. The best advice I could give people is to find excellent, curious, brilliant journalists to learn from. They might be here, or in a conventional newsroom; it doesn't matter. Journalism is a craft and the best way to learn it is to surround yourself with really good teachers. I was lucky at the CBC

Brian: "Above all, the central question about the Wikinews effort is its credibility. "Making a newspaper is hard... Someone who wants to do it but doesn't really know how hasn't solved the problem by gathering a lot of other people who don't know, either." This is a quote from a former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, have we proven him wrong?

SG: I think most definitely, you have proved him wrong. Journalism is not a profession: it is not like being a surgeon or a lawyer. There was an uneasy attempt to professionalize it with the advent of j-schools etc., post-Watergate. But at its heart, it's just a craft. And that means that it can be practiced by anyone who is sensible and intelligent and thoughtful and curious, who bothers to learn the rules and do it carefully. I go back to the morning of Virginia Tech—the morning I decided I wanted to work here. The conversation on the talk page that day was extremely thoughtful. I remember thinking to myself that if my own newsroom had been having a conversation that intelligent (I was offsite that day), I would have been delighted. So yes, IMO you absolutely have proved Robert McHenry wrong. And you will continue to.

Matt: If you were the interviewer here, what else would you have asked yourself?

SG: Nothing, really. You guys covered a lot of ground, and it was extremely interesting & fun for me. There is one last thing I would like to mention though. I was talking a little with Ilya about a proposal he's been working on for the Knight Foundation, and we started having what I thought was a quite interesting conversation about the future of Wikinews. This is something that really interests me, obviously.

were to create something (a conference, or conversation); I'd be interested in doing that with you. I am really interested in this project.

Matt: Thank you for your time.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.