THAT WIKI, WIKI, WACKY WORLD OF THE L.A. TIMES
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- Proof that print publications are trying to adapt, however badly, to the Internet Age can be seen in recent editions of "The Atlantic Monthly" and the Los Angeles Times. Paradoxically, they illustrate more about the ways print journalism could be improved by better writing than they tell us about the validity of technical innovation.
The Atlantic tried an experimental layout in which tinted boxes on the printed page are made to look like clickable links. The Times has its own online "wiki."
In the Atlantic's April, 2005 cover story "Host," the page designers highlighted words and phrases in different colors as if they were Internet links. The material referenced by these tinted boxes was put in the margins in similarly colored boxes. It was about as close to redoing the Internet on the printed page as I've ever seen, and, sorry to say, it was not really all that exciting.
In truth, the print "links" really just function as color coded versions of the venerable footnote. It's all very cute, but like the Edsel and the new Coca Cola, the survival of this graphic approach is in question. It's not that it is all that bad, but that it doesn't really add to the art of writing.
And then there is the wiki version of the editorial as created by the Los Angeles Times.
What is a wiki? The name comes from the Hawaiian wiki wiki, meaning quick, as you can discover by reading the best known incarnation, the Internet's Wikipedia. It is an online encyclopedia of unusual construction. A wiki is a Website in which readers are allowed to edit the content.
The Wikipedia explains it all in more detail, but the crux is that you or I can go to the article on DNA or Princess Di and edit away to our heart's content. The Wikipedia has had to develop its own procedures and cultural traditions for handling malicious mischief, but overall, the structure is impressive, coming to almost 600,000 items.
In what is called "the Los Angeles Times Wikitorial Page (Public Beta)," our famously stodgy newspaper placed an editable editorial about the Iraq occupation online for readers to manipulate. The editors were cautious enough to label it as a "beta," which is jargon for a test version supplied to the public for evaluation. As of this writing, it is not clear what the future of the Times' wiki is, because the newspaper closed out its first one in a way that might best be described as wiki wiki. It appears to have lasted just about 60 hours.
It was not without comment and controversy. The renowned Romanesko media-watch site (poynter.org) ran a link to an Editor & Publisher piece by Joe Strupp. It explains that Times' editors had been kept busy repairing the vandalism waged against the site, even as the piece grew and mutated in a positive way.
As to the editorial itself and its subsequent iterations, there is much to be said. The original editorial, at just under 1,070 words, was fairly long as these things go. Within 12 hours, it had grown to nearly 1,600 words. After 12 more hours, the editorial seemed as long as a Russian novel and even included a full-color photograph of flag-draped coffins.
By following the history links provided by the Times, it became apparent that dozens of manipulations in the form of additions, subtractions and substitutions were being executed in any given hour's time. Out of all this effort, something new was evolving, and it wasn't just wordiness.
The main difference had to do with something a little more meaty. There was a shift from the euphemistic, nuanced tones of the standard editorial page towards something more argumentative. Let's look at a couple of examples.
The first excerpt is from the original editorial, found in the June 17, 2005, print edition of the morning newspaper that was placed online at midnight Pacific time. Other than being condensed to remove paragraph breaks, the first three paragraphs are presented below word for word:
As the war in Iraq grinds on and the number of U.S. troops remains stubbornly fixed at 140,000, murmurs of dissatisfaction at home become louder and more widespread. Republican members of Congress have joined Democrats in questioning how much longer the troops will have to stay. Colonels and generals estimate two years, perhaps longer. Polls indicate an increasing public unease with the war. For his part, President Bush said last month he is "pleased with the progress" in Iraq, citing its national elections in January and the ongoing training of its military. Yet Baghdad experiences a car bombing just about every day; in all of 2004, there were 25. The elections may have represented progress; the violence does not. The president's assessment represents either ignorance or optimism — perhaps both. But it is hardly helpful to recite yet again, more than two years after the war began, the sorry litany of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq. What's needed is a clear timetable of goals and a specific set of consequences.
There sure are a lot of euphemisms there. Perhaps "understatements" would be a more diplomatic way to describe sections such as, "murmurs of dissatisfaction at home become louder," or the equally bland, "But it is hardly helpful to recite yet again, more than two years after the war began, the sorry litany of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq."
Now let's see how the amateur editors had changed it as of 11:31 am the next morning:
As the war in Iraq grinds on and the number of U.S. troops remains stubbornly fixed at 140,000, murmurs of dissatisfaction at home become louder and more widespread. A very few Republican members of Congress have joined a handful Democrats in questioning how much longer the troops will have to stay. Colonels and generals estimate two years, perhaps longer. British colonial experience in the mideast suggests two years would be wildly optimistic. At this date, polls indicate an increasing public unease with the war. And declining enlistments demonstrate that while Americans may pay lip service to this war, they are not willing to pay for it in blood. Millions of people around the world who protested "No Blood for Oil!" before the invasion are undoubtedly not surprised that there is no end in sight for a significant American military presence in the nation sitting atop the world's second largest petroleum reserves. And the long-stated NeoCon objective of establishing permanent American military bases in Iraq - more centrally located for projecting power in the Middle East and less subject to Islamic fundamentalist protestations than are our bases in Saudi Arabia - has been realized. For his part, President Bush said last month he is "pleased with the progress" in Iraq, citing its national elections in January and the ongoing training of its military. Despite the last few years of the President speaking mistruths to the public on an almost daily basis, the media seem as complacent and compliant as ever.
Something different is going on here - the baby food being spoon-fed to us earlier has been supplemented by amateur wiki artists, and suddenly the piece comes alive. It is turning into an editorial! At the risk of running the word-count up a little, let's go another two paragraphs from the wiki world:
Don't worry, though. Everything's going fine. Just watch Fox News. The president's assessment represents a profound ignorance probably born of self-delusion. The cliched phrase "pleased with progress" may be appropriate for a CEO reporting his quarterly results - even when showing losses. It is not a term to be found acceptable with continuing losses of Americans and innocent Iraqis. The President's pleasure may represent both deception of himself and of the American people. Remember 'Mission Accomplished"? Revelations from Downing Street, along with former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, add insight. It proves, as explicitly stated in the memo, that "the intelligence was being fixed." 9/11 tragically brought them the excuse they needed. This adds third-party corroboration to the mountain of evidence that the President lied, and pressured intelligence agencies to lie, about the certainty of evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction and about the connections between Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda.
In a few words, the contributors have managed to introduce several themes that the original was carefully skirting: the culpability of the mainstream media in avoiding confrontation with the president, the president's propensity for saying things that are not true, the ongoing scandal about the Downing Street memo. The table thumper is certainly: "This adds third-party corroboration to the mountain of evidence that the President lied, and pressured intelligence agencies to lie... ."
It was starting to become a great editorial.
Alas, the weakness of the wiki-form is that even well crafted pieces are ephemeral. Others added on ad nauseum until the piece was threatening to self-destruct from its own redundancy. At one point, the final paragraph consisted of a misspelled, ungrammatical rant that added nothing except confusion. At various time periods, the final paragraph consisted of either a call for the president's impeachment or a discussion of that topic.
Whatever the reason, the Times has closed its wiki as of this writing; perhaps it will be back online later. Perhaps not.
What became clear from this exercise is that it's possible to write an editorial that has teeth and, for this one brief shining moment, there it was, published on a site with the Los Angeles Times name up top.
There's another issue that the wiki begins to reveal: Even amateurs can write more interesting editorial copy than what comes out in modern, corporate-owned daily newspapers. Perhaps, as we have mentioned before, the weakness in the current process has to do with the schizoid goals that newspaper companies have to pursue.
Their business function is to sell advertising, and in this sense, the readers are the product that newspapers sell to their advertisers. At the same time, newspapers are selling words and pictures to their readers. Somehow, it all ends up as an exercise in cowardice. The wiki, whether you agreed with it or not, had some oomph. It became and stayed frankly partisan. To some of us, that is a good thing.