In a hard-hitting exposé that will surely garner a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, The Signpost delved into the dark and twisted world of Wikipedia's most powerful media institution: The Signpost.
Founded by Michael Snow on 10 January 2005, the Signpost was created to "spare people the effort of trying to be everywhere and read every discussion" by centralizing Wikipedia's news and announcements. The Signpost has been published by a staff of volunteers on a weekly basis with few breaks in publication. Over the years, the community newspaper has developed recurring sections dedicated to reporting news, watching the way Wikipedia is portrayed in other media, highlighting material promoted to Featured status, exploring WikiProject communities, following arbitration cases, and discussing technological matters. Other sections have come and gone while new features are occasionally introduced.
Michael Snow served as the newspaper's first editor-in-chief from its inception until August 2005, when he passed the baton to Ryan Lomonaco (Ral315). After serving over three years in that capacity, Ral315 retired in December 2008 and was followed in February 2009 by Sage Ross (Ragesoss). When Ragesoss left the Signpost in June 2010, Tilman Bayer (HaeB) took up the reins. Since HaeB's departure in July 2011, the newspaper has been led by a team of interim editors. We interviewed all four former editors-in-chief (editors emeritus) and asked our current editor, Skomorokh, how Wikipedians can become involved in their community newspaper.
When did you first become involved with the Signpost and what initially motivated you to contribute? How did you wind up in the position of editor-in-chief? What have you done since moving on from that position?
Michael Snow: I think my reasons for getting involved are best explained with reference to the message I wrote for the original issue of the Signpost—I was interested in things that were happening on Wikipedia even though I didn't have time to be personally involved in everything, and the concept seemed to fill a glaring need. In starting the project, obviously I was editor-in-chief simply by default. I moved on, if you will, mostly because I couldn't keep up with the organizing and publishing in addition to writing most of the stories. I'm still immensely grateful and a bit flattered that people stepped in to fill the void and keep it going, which let me be more of just a reporter for a while. Since being active in that role I've been more directly involved in the Wikimedia Foundation, spending a couple years on the Board of Trustees and now serving on the Advisory Board.
Ral315: I first got involved in the Signpost when Michael had to step away temporarily due to time commitments. I wrote one issue completely by myself, and recruited a few other users to help out in subsequent weeks (including Michael, who continued to write stories). I didn't really know what I was getting myself into—I figured I'd just help out temporarily, and ended up as editor-in-chief for over three years. I wanted to do it because I felt like the Signpost was an incredibly useful tool that I had referred to many a time, and I thought it should continue. Since leaving the Signpost, I've largely retired from Wikipedia due to real-life commitments.
Ragesoss: Since becoming a Wikipedian in late 2005, I was always interested in the intersection of Wikipedia and the academic world, and I first got involved with the Signpost doing some reporting on how people talked about Wikipedia on academic mailing lists. I guess I impressed Ral315, because he would sometimes chat with me about how best to cover controversial issues. At the end of 2008, after a few weeks without a new Signpost, I started trying to get publication back on track. A few weeks later, in the do-acracy tradition, Ral315 passed on the editor-in-chief to me. I stepped down when I took a 15-month job with the Wikimedia Foundation as "Online Facilitator" for the education program pilot. Since that ended, I've been accumulating a backlog of wiki-things I want to do, but I've not had time to do much more than work on the scholarships committee for Wikimania 2012.
HaeB: I had joined the German and English Wikipedias at the end of 2003. My own active Signpost involvement built up gradually, from submitting suggestions, to writing one-off stories, to more regular reporting. (I think that many Wikipedians still don't realize that the Signpost is open to everyone's contributions, just like Wikipedia itself!) When Sage left as editor in June 2010, I first only volunteered to take over the Signpost's social media feeds (Twitter, Identi.ca) that he had started, but then got persuaded to act as editor-in-chief as well. Since July 2011, I have been working as a contractor for the Wikimedia Foundation, supporting movement communications. That function includes several tasks that contribute to the same broad goal of keeping the community informed and where the experience from my Signpost work is very useful: I am editing and publishing the monthly WMF reports, worked on the 2010-11 annual report and form part of the group that takes care of the Foundation blog. As time and conflict-of-interest allows, I am still contributing to the Signpost and have helped out with various things, but my only regular commitment remains co-editing the monthly "Recent research" section, which is co-published by the Wikimedia Research Committe as the Wikimedia Research Newsletter.
What role does the Signpost play in the Wikipedia community? How does this role differ from Wikipedia's myriad talk pages, village pumps, and WikiProjects? Is the Signpost expected to live up to the same journalistic standards as other print, broadcast, and online media?
Michael Snow: I called it a newspaper originally, to the extent that term still means anything in a digital world, and reporting the news is still the core function as I see it. There are plenty of other places where Wikipedia news happens, announcements get made, or discussions about news take place, but the Signpost can collect information about all of that in one place. In terms of standards, yes I think on a fundamental level the journalistic approach is appropriate. The setup is unusual, given that it's a volunteer effort, we may not have formal journalism training, and because we're all working on Wikipedia, there's a sense in which a fully detached outsider perspective to reporting is impossible to achieve. However, I think because we've learned by editing Wikipedia articles and embracing the neutral point of view approach, we naturally want to try anyway, and can end up doing a creditable job.
Ral315: I think the main role that the Signpost plays is to recap everything that's gone on across the projects. Just on the English Wikipedia, to keep up with everything that's going on, users might have to watch a wide range of pages, including the Village Pump, Administrators' Noticeboards, Arbitration pages, WikiProjects, and countless others. The Signpost was an attempt to condense the important stories of the week into an easily-readable format. Speaking for myself, I would not consider myself a journalist, and have no formal training—but I feel that we've done a great job in reporting issues in a neutral fashion.
Ragesoss: I agree with everything Michael and Ral315 said. I would add that in my view, an increasingly important role for the Signpost is to serve as a watchdog, holding the Wikimedia Foundation and other influential actors accountable to the community. WMF in particular is much larger, better funded, and more capable of driving major social and technical changes than it was even just a few years ago. A strong adversarial press (analogous to the relationships between governments and major newspapers) is in the best interest of both the WMF and the volunteer community.
HaeB: I also agree with all of Michael's, Ral315's and Ragesoss' observations. Another way to understand the Signpost's role and importance is to see it as something that helps to connect different parts of a large and diverse community. Seen more prosaically, readers draw much value from the Signpost simply because it saves them the time of reading village pumps, mailing lists, etc. — indeed most of the information has already been published elsewhere, but we condense it in a readable format and add context. This often took up all the writing time, leaving little for original reporting. But this lack of investigative writing is about the only significant difference I see to traditional media. Also regarding journalistic standards, let me add that as a German Wikipedian, I am intrigued by the comparison of the Signpost with its sister publication there, the "Kurier". It was started in the end of 2003 with the tagline "nicht neutral, nicht enzyklopädisch" ("not neutral, not encyclopedic"), which still remains in essence, although an additional tongue-in-cheek self-description as tabloid was been removed not too long ago. The Kurier has run a lot of great stories as well, but it constantly suffers from canvassing, too much opinionated and biased coverage, and insider details lacking context—in short, it lacks an editorial process such as that which the Signpost has formed in its weekly cycle.
Share with our readers the most challenging aspects of writing and editing the Signpost. Do you have any suggestions for how the newspaper can better cope with deadlines, recruit talent, and engage readers?
Ral315: For me, the challenge was two-fold, and you've mentioned both issues: Recruiting volunteers to help, and publishing on-time. My tenure as editor-in-chief was notable for consistently late publication—because I live in the United States and generally couldn't get most of the work finished until Monday afternoon or evening, our Monday issue often didn't publish until early Tuesday UTC. It was an unfortunate side-effect of my real-life obligations, which left me unable to do much work over the weekend. As for volunteers, I found it toughest to find volunteers to write one-off stories (the type of stories that aren't features, like, for example, a story about a controversial AfD request).
Ragesoss: On-time publication was a challenge for me as well. I found that when I was pro-active in getting things ready to publish, other writers got things done on time too. But the more I would slack off, the later others would push their deadlines.
The things that caused me the most stress, though, were the times when individual Wikipedians would get upset about how the Signpost covered them and drama they were involved with. I always tried to be sensitive to the people involved, and not to offend unnecessarily, but also not to avoid covering a story just because it might upset someone. Still, it's never fun to face the wrath of an angry encyclopedist.
I also felt a tension between promoting the Signpost more widely (which I think could create a stronger sense of community) and being self-promotional. For example, I think a link to the Signpost ought to be in the sidebar. It's at least as important as community portal. But I didn't feel comfortable proposing that while serving as editor-in-chief.
HaeB: I share Ragesoss' observation that issues of, let's call it COI and BLP, can consume a lot of energy of the editor-in-chief. As for recruiting good writers: During my tenure, broad appeals to become involved, directed at all readers, did not appear to have much effect. It was much more successful to keep looking out for suitable candidates, and then invite them—letting them know specifically why one thinks they might have the skills for the task. Still, I often had to fill in myself as main writer for the "In the news" and "News and notes" sections, because no regular editor committed to work on these consistently. And accordingly, these two sections caused the most publication delays. As for deadlines, I tried to stick to the natural Monday midnight UTC deadline (natural because it corresponds to the date in the URL of each story), and succeeded not always, but often—also thanks to the prodding of editors of regular sections which were unhappy of their punctually completed work going stale because of other sections missing the deadline. I do think that having deadlines and a regular publication schedule is a huge factor in the Signpost's success. Again this can be compared to the "Kurier", where new stories can be posted at any time, which has the advantage of timeliness, but the disadvantage of not generating that important "now or never" sentiment for writers when publication time is approaching ("The Signpost is going out in five hours, and we still don't have <important topic X> covered!"). I find it interesting to muse about whether there might be a valuable lesson for Wikinews somewhere in here, although I don't know this sister project well enough to draw it myself. What the Signpost does share with Wikinews is the somewhat un-wiki-like notion of discouraging non-trivial edits to stories after publication, which has to be explained to Wikipedians often, but is a good principle to stick to. The bylines are another Signpost custom not shared in normal Wikipedia work (although they are not meant to convey ownership, just to indicate responsibility).
Michael Snow: The reason I set things up with a Monday publication schedule was because I did the bulk of my Signpost work on weekends (my goal really was to publish Sunday night my time, when it would already be Monday in most of the world anyway). I usually considered it an achievement if I managed to get stories pre-written during the week for the next issue. In terms of recruiting volunteers, I agree with the observation that it was easier to get people who would do a stint handling a particular beat, since you could follow a familiar template to write those stories. As a reporter, that was okay because I preferred bringing out things that seemed newsworthy beyond a particular beat, so I was fine letting other people recap arbitration cases or outside news coverage. With my editor hat on, though, there's certainly more stuff that could be covered if more people wanted to cover one-off stories, we've pretty much always had news events and story suggestions that get left on the table.
I think the most important thing is writing stories that are thorough, neutral, and interesting. By doing so, readership will naturally come, and with increased readership brings new volunteers who are interested in helping out.
In your opinion, what are the most important sections of the newspaper? How frequently should the Signpost run special reports, opinion pieces, book reports, and experimental sections? Does the paper need an occasional shake-up to keep it fresh?
HaeB: I felt that the "News and notes" section was the most important and at the same time most difficult to write section, but after I became editor I appreciated each of the other sections more and more as well. It would be nice to have more book reviews.
Ral315: I always found the most important sections to be the special reports, particularly those that covered off-wiki news that affected Wikipedia (articles about the GNU licensing update that allowed us to switch to CC-BY-SA, the John Seigenthaler incident, etc.). Book reviews and experimental sections are always fun; one of my favorite odd sections was the WikiWorld section that ran from late 2006-2008.
While I was editor-in-chief, we didn't run opinion pieces. I was critical of the idea of running opinion pieces, because I felt NPOV was important. However, from what I've seen, it looks like they've done a good job of keeping the opinion pieces from tainting the neutral point of view that the rest of the paper embodies. As for a shake-up, I think the best shake-up comes from adding strong contributors who can provide a different perspective.
Michael Snow: Not to cop out on this, but as with any newspaper, every section is important to a certain audience, even if those people may not care as much about the other content. That was pretty clear in the way people paid attention to certain areas, stepped up to cover different beats, and suggested new ones. In addition to following the talk page for each story, early on I would pay attention to how stories were getting linked to and discussed, to get a feel for what the community was interested in. Obviously, occasionally one big story might dominate, but usually it seemed like interest was well-distributed across different topics. In general, I think that if somebody understands the Signpost and feels like a particular type of content is worth bringing to its readers, their motivation indicates that some of the audience is likely to be interested. New experiments keep the Signpost fresh in a sense, although I would say the point is not so much to shake things up as simply to keep things growing. Oh and I too loved the comic strips.
Ragesoss: I'll agree with both Ral315 and Michael here. Good, in-depth coverage of the big stories is probably the most important overall, but different readers care about different sections. Regular reports on ongoing policy discussions are also important, but that's one area that the Signpost has always struggled to keep up with. Book reviews were always among my personal favorites. (I too loved the comic strips. I had a few leads for new comics, but they never panned out.)
At various times, there have been discussions about expanding the Signpost to a multi-wiki or multi-language format. What are your thoughts on changing the paper's scope and audience? Should the Signpost build stronger connections to existing newspapers on the other languages of Wikipedia?
Ral315: As long as the original audience is not left out in the dust, I think it's a good idea. When I was editing, the only comparable publication of any note was the German WikiKurier, so we never really did much in that respect. Partnerships with other languages and projects via the Signpost and their related papers are a great way to bring the projects together, but I think the Signpost's main audience – the English Wikipedia – should not be forgotten.
Michael Snow: The Kurier actually predates the Signpost, for what it's worth, although I don't recall being aware of it when I started. At one point we had a regular series consisting of reports from other Wikipedia languages (although obviously that's not a "beat" you can handle with just one person). I tried to occasionally pass on stuff from other wikis that I thought might be interesting to an English Wikipedia audience. And just like many people who work in other languages also edit on the English Wikipedia, many of them also read the Signpost. I don't know that any one publication can manage to be a universal international news source, so I wouldn't necessarily try to merge all of these efforts together. But being freely licensed does mean you can translate and crib from each other if ever you need to.
HaeB: Shortly before I became editor, a discussion had been started to make the Signpost more "international", contributing to the rename from "Wikipedia Signpost" to "The Signpost". I do think we managed to broaden the scope of e.g. the "News and notes" section to encompass notable Wikimedia topis outside the English Wikipedia, and we introduced the distribution of the Signpost to other projects—today, over 100 subscription pages (project pages and individual users) exist outside the English Wikipedia. On the other hand, the "Sister projects" series has long been dormant. As for translated versions, I think a Signpost issue contains way too much text for this to be sustainable. The Wikimedia Quarto was a great newsletter in 2004/2005 which faltered soon, presumably due to its high ambition "to publish quarterly in 10 languages". The much more concise Wikizine enjoyed translations into a few languages for a while. Some months ago, at the Foundation we introduced the "Wikimedia Highlights", a short excerpt of the monthly WMF report combined with brief news from the rest of the movement, which has seen translations of up to over 10 languages per issue. As for collaborations of the Signpost with newsletters from other Wikimedia projects, I would love to see more translations of interesting news articles from other languages.
Ragesoss: I'd love to see stronger connections between the Signpost and other language communities. But it's hard. The volunteers who are interested in cross-project issues and translation tend to be stretched pretty thin.
The Signpost has developed its own lore, ranging from inside jokes about the initialization of several sections to rumors that the editor in chief position has become a training ground for future Wikimedia Foundation volunteers and employees. Can you respond to some of these stories? Do you have any other interesting tall tales to add to the mix?
Ral315: Well, thus-far, I'm one of the few who wasn't hired by the Wikimedia Foundation, so take from that what you will! Seriously, the Signpost may have raised the profile of Michael Snow and Sage Ross, but the fact is that they are incredible contributors who were incredibly committed to the projects—and ultimately, that's why they were appointed to their positions.
When it comes to the sections, some older users may remember the Arbitration report being named "The Report on Lengthy Litigation" (acronym: TROLL). That pre-dated me, but when I created the Technology report, I took a page from the same book and named it "Bugs, Repairs, and Internal Operational News" (acronym: BRION). I don't know if there are any other stories or tall tales, but I'd sure be happy to respond if anyone has any fun ones.
Michael Snow: Ha, TROLL was the name I came up with. I figured it was at least arguably a neutral joke—even if you take the acronym as a criticism, it's not explicit about which parties that applies to, and the full title can be as much a swipe at the arbitrators for being too deliberative as anything else. Nobody is spared. If you want other examples of humor from back in the day, there's always this story about a featured article candidate (I won't promise that the humor is particularly clean or high-quality, but if you can tolerate puns you may enjoy it).
As for rumors, well most of that is pretty much verifiably true, although it's not by any particular design, either by me or the Foundation. Editing the Signpost involves a certain level of dedication as a volunteer, and to do it well also requires a good understanding of the overall landscape—Wikipedia as a project, the editing community, the Wikimedia Foundation, and how different pieces of the picture connect to each other. It's pretty natural that the Foundation would also be interested in people who've demonstrated commitment and a good high-level perspective of how things work around here. But there are also many ways to show that outside of the Signpost.
Ragesoss: To add fuel to the fire, I'll add that for most of my tenure as editor-in-chief, I worked closely with the tireless Phoebe Ayers... who ended up with a board seat. And several other people who've written for the Signpost have gone on to work as staff or contractors for the Foundation. Also, I know a number of people who've never worked for the Foundation and also never written for the Signpost. Coincidence?
HaeB: Well, all I can say that preparing for a job at the Foundation was most certainly not among my motivations for taking up the editor position! I value the independence of the Signpost and made it clear upfront during the hiring process that I would need to step down as Signpost editor to avoid a conflict of interest, and the Foundation was perfectly supportive of that; there was no effort whatsoever to "buy" the Signpost.
What is the most important thing you have learned from your Signpost experience? What do you hope readers will take away from each issue of the Signpost?
Ragesoss: I came to appreciate a much wider swath of what goes on throughout Wikipedia and the broader Wikimedia movement. Even as an experienced Wikipedian and admin (and avid Signpost reader), there was a lot I didn't know about before I turned to the project with a journalistic eye.
Ral315: I think the most important thing I learned was that the community is incredibly supportive of our work. I hope that every issue, readers get a feel for the most important news happening around Wikipedia and Wikimedia. I think we've done a great job of that over the years.
HaeB: I think I learned a lot about journalism in general, and acquired certain skills (e.g. regarding the use of Twitter/Identi.ca for news reporting), but it was also a nice way to achieve a more thorough understanding of Wikipedia and the whole Wikimedia movement. I hope that each week each reader gains a bit of that as well, and that it helps them in their work on Wikipedia.
Michael Snow: For me, the Signpost was an important lesson in what I could contribute to the community and the impact that could have. At the same time, it taught me things about the limitations of how much I personally could take on, but one of the great things about working collaboratively as a community is that the impact we have drives us to keep contributing and we compensate for each other's limitations. I think even in controversy a good news story, like a good Wikipedia article, can help us understand all sides of the picture. So I hope readers will feel like they're staying informed, but also developing an appreciation for the richness of our community.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Ral315: Thank you for doing this, and to the readers: Please consider helping out, too! It's not at all hard, and it's a lot of fun. Help out with a feature, or write your own story on something happening around the community. The more people involved, the better the Signpost can be.
Michael Snow: Likewise, thank you for putting this together. Just like Wikipedia, the Signpost is a collective effort, so it is whatever we make of it. I'm glad that it's still moving steadily forward after all this time.
Ragesoss: I've been incredibly impressed with Signpost since I left. HaeB, Jarry1250, SMasters and Skomorokh, as well as the many other contributors, have done and continue to do a fantastic job.
HaeB: I am glad that others like Jarry1250, SMasters and Skomorokh have stepped in after I left, and kudos to everybody who is currently contributing to the Signpost!
What are the Signpost's most urgent needs? Are there any new features or revived sections you'd like to see in future issues? How can new writers and editors get involved today?
Skomorokh: It's been touched upon above by several of my predecessors, whom I thank sincerely for agreeing to participate in this valuable retrospective of the institution, but I cannot overemphasise the need of the Signpost for interested, curious and dedicated writers. There is little end to the ambition and willingness to see ideas through to execution of the existing tireless and over-extended team of journalists—the single greatest limitation that constrains what the Signpost can achieve is that its ideal volunteer journalists are reading this edition right now rather than asking themselves are they inspired to face the challenge of exploring what really matters to Wikipedia in the newsroom from week to week.
Although I had been a contributor to the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit and an ardent Signpost reader for years, it had never even remotely occurred to me that I could or should get involved in the newspaper's production until one of the journalists suggested it to me. A few hours later I had written the bulk of two entire articles and a few weeks after that was one of the managing editors overseeing weekly development and publication. I'm writing this at 7:00 AM having stayed up to edit the paper because there simply aren't enough hours in the day for so few editors to deliver the standard of coverage the community expects and deserves; even a handful of additional contributors can make a highly significant impact.
At a point in the movement's history when the greatest challenges we face – notably strained community-Foundation relations, inertia and paralysis in the face of needed reform, and most of all a contributing environment hostile to outsiders – are cultural, the tone and sustained focus of the debates we have as a movement are critically important, as cultural changes such as the BLP issue and the ongoing debates on controversial content show. In times such as these, the Signpost offers to those who care passionately about our future an unrivalled platform in terms of structure, access and most of all audience to drive the community's understanding of the critical issues at hand.
If you're passionate about Wikipedia, we want you; if you're dedicated to its success, we want you; if you have any skills to offer, from outright reporting to background research, engaging readers in social media to reviewing proposals, to illustration or subediting or copywriting, we want you; if you've ever muttered to yourself or a fellow editor that some concern doesn't get the attention it deserves or some problem is improperly understood, here I offer you your opportunity and challenge: step up to the task of advancing our collective understanding, volunteer to write the Signpost today!
Next week, we'll interview some nutmeggers. Until then, revisit Signpost history in the archive.