Our newsroom at Mediafin is transforming into an integrated multimedia operation. To prepare for this, we recently decided to create two wikis to stimulate talk and facilitate media training programs. At the same time we also created another wiki to encourage discussion amongst our readers.

In this very early phase of the experiments, I learned that wikis are still an unusual concept for many people. For people who already know each other well, a wiki can be an efficient way to prepare projects and events, but the tool seems less useful for a group of strangers. Thus, I am not yet convinced that a wiki is a good way to let Mediafin’s reading audience create new content.

Wikis for internal discussions

We decided to use PBWiki to stimulate the discussion at the Central News Desk (CND), the editorial department where about 18 journalists work primarily for our financial wire service, providing content for our websites but also for the Mediafin print publication.

We use the wiki to report about internal meetings, prepare informal weekend events, and publish a financial events calendar. We have also used it to facilitate a discussion about the future role of the CND in an integrated newsroom.

CND members used the wiki to propose changes in Mediafin’s structure, like spreading the CND workforce out over the newspaper sections (the formerly print-only sections such as politics and economy, companies, markets, etc.) or reorganizing our markets coverage. About half of the CND journalists participated at least once on the wiki. Those who declined to participate justified their decision by saying the system was “slow” (an argument denied by others) or that it was “rather complicated.”

I suspect that those complaining did not spend much time trying to figure out the wiki system — maybe only a few minutes. The most common argument by non-participants was that they simply didn’t have enough time to engage in a wiki discussion.

We launched the second wiki in conjunction with a social media course meant to teach our journalists about new media tools such as RSS feeds, blogging, micro-blogging, live-blogging, social bookmarks, and, of course, wikis. I gave wiki access to a test group of about five people, all senior editorial managers. They all read text posted on the wiki and watched the videos I provided, but only one person actually added content to the wiki.

This one person happens to be very knowledgeable in social media, so perhaps the others declined to add anything because they felt less confident in their expertise. During the actual course session, everyone involved was very active in the discussion and I got a lot of constructive suggestions to improve the course — but as yet those present have not contributed directly to the wiki.

However, even after the course is completed, I hope that this wiki will live on as a place where people can add experiences or links to interesting new developments in social media. Maybe my colleagues will feel more comfortable with wikis after the workshops.

External wiki

While the previous two wikis were created for internal use at Mediafin, I also launched a community wiki that was open to the public; this wiki was linked to our financial markets blog Bear&Bull.

I know from past experience that our readers like to participate in our live blogs and chat sessions, and I frequently get personal emails from people expressing positive feelings about our blogs. A real sense of community has been developing amongst our blog readers. When I told my colleagues about this, we thought we could encourage it even more if we facilitated readers’ contributions to the main themes of the blog.

The community blog is all about engagement and collaboration; we wanted readers to think of the blog as the product of a community effort, with journalists acting as facilitators.

We hoped that readers would write collective texts about issues to be addressed in the blog — fundamental shifts in the world economy which may have a profound long-term impact on the financial markets, like changes in demographics, the emerging markets and globalization, energy and environmental issues, security and terrorism, and urbanization.

i-8fe2449c010ebd322b88db66cd6cf0a2-grotekwesties-thumb-250x176-thumb-250x176.jpg

Unfortunately, few Bear&Bull Blog readers responded to the wiki. Although many read it, only two readers posted comments. In addition to allowing readers to edit wiki articles themselves, this community wiki also allows readers to add their own comments below each wiki article. Tellingly, while both of those readers posted elaborate comments, neither added or changed anything in the actual text body fields — even though we explained that they were free to do so and that we could always return to the earlier versions. The style those readers used — long comments — made me wonder whether in fact a forum might not be a better venue than a wiki for fostering reader engagement.

We do provide the possibility to comment on individual articles on the sites, but the articles disappear from the home page together with the comments as time passes and new articles are added. These articles get fewer daily visits as they slowly become part of the site archives instead of highly visible entries on the home page.

Trying Out a Ning

Even though people like the fact they can comment on breaking news, community members also told us they would like to continue discussions for a longer time. That’s why we think we need a more permanent place for discussions which can than last for days, weeks, months or even years.

Technical reasons prevent us from quickly adding forums to our main site, so I tested this out by creating a Bear&Bull site on Ning. The disadvantage here is that the wiki is hosted on an external site, but the forums are part of a platform that allows for personal pages, blogs, sharing videos and pictures. The Ning solution also makes it possible to launch your own community site very rapidly.

I created the community platform on a Friday afternoon; over the weekend, we got 24 members. Two members started discussions (in addition to some discussions I started myself) and about 20 reactions were posted.

The forum seems to be more popular than the wiki, but it’s too soon to judge. Of those 24 persons, about 15 are current or former Mediafin colleagues — but most of the comments were posted by ordinary members of the public. Our sites get about 200,000 unique visitors per working day, which puts things into perspective.

Some preliminary conclusions

Our wiki experiments are still at a very early stage, but I was still able to come to some tentative conclusions:

> Time is scarce. People will eventually comment on articles, but writing a comment should be very simple and straightforward. They also prefer to interact in a highly visible place (such as under the article on the home page), rather than on a less visible, less visited community forum.

> Wikis can be useful to save time when working with a large group of people. For instance, a wiki is an efficient way to organize an event or project involving several journalists. (Although a wiki can’t entirely take the place of actual meetings.)

> On the other hand, using wikis to create collective texts about “big issues” is difficult. People hesitate to change texts, and they don’t have the time or the skills to write elaborate stories. Most of our audience is still not used to the idea of collaborating to write a text with other people whom they have never actually met.

This is not only an issue of technical skills and knowledge, it is more about the mindset. Many people may consider it rude to change a text without the previous consent of the author. Even when this consent is formally given, it’s still considered a rather delicate situation.

Part of the reluctance to edit wiki articles may also come from the feeling that journalists, workshop leaders, and other wiki authors are always more knowledgeable, and that it is foolish to “know better” than the experts. Maybe we should try to present wiki projects in a more playful way, so as to make the community feel more at ease.

> Readers so far appear to prefer familiar formats, like forums, to wikis. In addition, forums started by external community members (rather than by the journalists themselves) seem to be more popular.

I still believe that wikis have a role to play in facilitating community discussions, so I’m not yet ready to give up on them. However, it’s clear both from the way readers preferred to start comment threads on our community wiki and from the enthusiastic response to the newly created forum that readers are still most comfortable with more familiar modes of online communication. They are more likely to comment in a forum than a wiki. As such, I think our first priority should be to integrate forums and personal pages into Mediafin’s main sites.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.