Imagine a newspaper with more than 2,000 writers, researchers and copy editors, yet no supervisors or managers to speak of. No deadlines; no meetings to plan coverage; no decisions handed down through a chain of command.
It doesn't sound like any news operation that any journalist would recognize. Yet that seemingly chaotic nonstructure describes the scene at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which, for a few days last week, served as an essential news source for hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet trying to understand the shootings at Virginia Tech.
From the contributions of 2,074 editors, at last count, the site created a polished, detailed article on the massacre, with more than 140 separate footnotes, as well as sidebars that profiled the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, and gave a timeline of the attacks.
According to the foundation that runs the various Wikipedias around the world, there were more than 750,000 visits to the main article on the shootings in its first two days, an average of four visits a second. Even The Roanoke Times, which is published near Virginia Tech's home of Blacksburg, Va., noted Thursday that Wikipedia "has emerged as the clearinghouse for detailed information on the event."
Recently, Wikipedia had been the object of much controversy over the reliability of the its articles and the frequent anonymity of its contributors.
But during some recent critical events, like the Virginia Tech killings, the Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, and the London bombings in 2005, the site has been transformed from an ever-growing reference book into an ever-updating news source -- albeit one with scant original reporting. (Wikipedia's policy precludes original research.)
"Professional news is the place to get the facts on the ground -- after all, that's where Wikipedia contributors are getting their information, too," said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator. "Wikipedia distinguishes itself by the ability to bring all the facts, and useful background information, together in one place."
In interviews, some of the most prolific contributors about the Virginia Tech shootings said they were at a loss to explain how everything manages to come out as well as it does.
Miikka Ryokas, whose user name is Kizor and in an e-mail message said that he was a 22-year-old computer science student from Turku, Finland, wrote that he had spent 15 hours on the article, mostly to "tag dubious information with 'citation needed' or remove it entirely" and to "restore valid information that is accidentally lost."
"I get involved when a major tragedy strikes," he wrote. "I may not be able to help the victims, but I can, and therefore must, do a small part in helping accurate information get through to the world."
As unfamiliar as it may seem, the contributors insist there isn't even a shadowy figure who becomes the mastermind of the process.
"People seem to self-assign," said Natalie Erin Martin, 23, a history major at Antioch College in Ohio, who describes herself as "an obsessive copy editor and spellchecker."
"There is no one person at the top saying this is what you need to do," she said. "It has all been out of a sense of personal responsibility."
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