‘L.A Times’ Explains End of its ‘Wiki’

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A bold Los Angeles Times experiment in letting readers rewrite the paper’s editorials lasted all of three days.

The newspaper suspended its “Wikitorial” Web feature after some users flooded the site over the weekend with foul language and pornographic photos.

The paper had posted on its Web site Friday an editorial urging a better-defined plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. Readers were invited to add their thoughts. Dozens did, with some adding hyperlinks and others adding opposing views.

One reader split the long editorial in two, something that pleased Michael Kinsley, the Times’ editorial and opinion editor.

But the number of “inappropriate” posts soon began to overwhelm the editors’ ability to monitor the site. On Sunday, editors decided to remove the feature.

“Wikis,” based on the Hawaiian word “wiki wiki” for “quick,” are online communities that encourage users to collectively write and edit articles, and even override and delete other contributors’ work. The end product can be thought of as a community’s shared knowledge.

There are Wiki cookbooks, collections of quotations and an encyclopedia.

The newspaper’s Web page was to show the original editorial and interim versions along with the readers’ final product.

“The result is a constantly evolving collaboration among readers in a communal search for truth,” the paper said in its Friday edition. “Or that’s the theory.”

The Times said it might be creating a new form of opinion journalism — or an embarrassing failure.

In a statement Monday, the Times said the feature would stay offline indefinitely while it looked at what happened and how to fix it.

“We thank the thousands of people who logged onto the Wikitorial in the right spirit,” the paper said.

“I applaud them for trying a bold experiment,” said Steve Outing, senior editor with the journalism think tank Poynter Institute. “That being said, I’m not at all surprised (by the problems). Wikis are pretty new, and we don’t entirely understand them and know how they are going to work out yet.”

He said Wikis “are most suited for factual information where the content can become accurate because of the power of the intelligence of the group.”

“Trying to do that with an opinion piece doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense,” Outing said. “People with competing views would just try to get their particular viewpoint published and someone would go in and change it.”

In fact, it’s one of the chief challenges facing the best-known Wiki, Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where any visitor can add, change and erase someone else’s entry.

Some contributors have attempted to impose their personal viewpoints — for instance, by replacing an article on abortion with the word “murder” written 143 times.

The Wikitorial is one of several changes to the paper’s editorial page being made under the leadership of Kinsley, the political commentator and columnist who founded the online magazine Slate in 1996 and took over the Times’ opinion pages a year ago.

A feature called “Thinking Out Loud” debuted last Thursday. The entire page was devoted to short items from each member of the paper’s editorial board on the topic of traffic. There was no central conclusion. The Times described the section as “an experiment in making up our minds in public.”

The Times is also allowing editorial board members to dissent from editorials they disagree with and criticize editorials from other papers.

Board members will also be writing bylined articles reflecting on life in Southern California under the title “A SoCal Life.”

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