Wiki For Governor
No, someone named Wiki hasn't announced a run for governor of Maine (although maybe that did happen and I missed it — it's hard to keep track of all these candidates). The headline refers to my new and half-baked idea about how to cover Maine politics.
Right now in Maine, the number of political journalists is declining almost as quickly as the number of gubernatorial candidates is increasing, and that's just an escalation of a trend that has been going on for decades. Apparently, years ago, Maine's newspapers had reporters dedicated to following candidates all over the state, tracking their policies and promises and keeping them honest. In more recent contests, even general election candidates have been very lucky if they can get a handful of reporters to show up to major campaign events.
Some of this coverage has been replaced by online sources. The rise of the Internet and online citizen journalism has created an environment where people interested in politics can quickly and easily disseminate information and opinions using their own blog, twitter feed or YouTube channel, and every politician who wants to win also uses these kinds of channels to attempt to reach voters outside of traditional media sources.
This amalgam of new sources has the potential to offer more and better information than even the army of ink-stained wretches of years gone by, but it has some glaring flaws as well.
First, the impetus to publish political content in these new media comes from personal or professional interest. People write in their spare time and only on what interests them. If a campaign or policy doesn't immediately grab someone's attention, it doesn't make the cut. The all-inclusive, eat-your-vegetables approach to political journalism that's still a hallmark of many newspapers doesn't really exist in these newer sources.
This problem of biased coverage is further compounded by content creators who have a particular political agenda. It's now very common for campaign staff and supporters to use blogs to circulate information that helps their candidate and hurts their opponents. The site formerly known as Turn Maine Blue saw a great deal of this kind of campaign-sponsored blogging during the 2008 First Congressional District primary election, for one recent example.
Content from these new media outlets may also be badly sourced or just plain wrong. People now often rush to post new political information to their blog or twitter or Facebook feed and there are no editors to make sure the details are right. Reader comments and other blogs help to keep them honest, but by then falsities may already have been spread across the web.
Even the good information is dispersed across dozens of Web sites and hundreds of tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos. Just keeping an eye on all these channels can be a full-time job and most voters, obviously, don't. The individual range of these new outlets is incredibly small compared to Maine's traditional media sources.
There's also nothing to stop Web sites and other online sources from simply winking out of existence when their creators move on to other pursuits. You can't find old blog posts in a library or on Lexis/Nexis.
The best solution to better statewide political coverage would be finding some way to harness the energy of all these engaged online politicos but still maintain a modicum of journalistic authority.
That's why I think the 2010 governor's race needs a wiki.
Most people are familiar with Wikipedia, the incredibly popular online encyclopedia where anyone can edit the information, all additions and changes are perfectly transparent, and a crowd of community-minded volunteers steer entries towards greater accuracy and usefulness.
The same sort of system could work to chronicle an ongoing event like the 2010 gubernatorial election. There could be entries on each candidate, policy proposal and campaign event (the recent dust-up over the Portland GOP forum would have its own page, for instance) all in one place, linked together, up-to-date, with footnotes and links to outside sources.
For this to work, the project would have to have buy-in from these new content creators and an editing and oversight process that people trust. The former is likely dependent on the latter.
This trust would likely best be created by first ensuring that anyone can edit, every edit is completely visible, and that the site administrators with a final say over content don't all hold the same political views and are, collectively, dedicated to objective truth rather than partisan advantage.
If content creators can trust the site itself, I think they'd be more than happy to participate, considering they can use the wiki to link back to and promote their own content that they've posted. Bloggers who might previously have had time only to make short posts, might instead chose to make small additions to larger articles, which could potentially eventually rival the informational value of the best investigative reports from traditional media sources.
This kind of project likely couldn't be undertaken by a newspaper or other existing media source. It's unlikely they would allow the potential for bad information to be posted, even if it was eventually noticed and fixed by readers. So I guess the next question is: Who could make this happen?
Think this could work? Think I'm crazy? Let me know.