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14 January 2011

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and lazy journalists

“They were always lazy, now they’re just a little better informed.”

By Jon Bernstein

Tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of the birth of Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopaedia launched as an experiment on 15 January 2001 and now hosting 17 million pages across 271 languages.

Yesterday, I spent most of my day in the company of Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, as he spoke at the Bristol Festival of Ideas (his only public outing of this visit) and then on the journey back to London, where he hosted a party to thank the army of British Wikipedia volunteers, under the umbrella of Wikimedia UK.

Before talking to Wales I did the social (media) thing and canvassed for questions via Twitter. My favourite came from The Media Blog’s Will Sturgeon, a former colleague.

So I asked Wales: do you feel guilty about breeding a generation of lazy journalists? His answer:

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I think they were always lazy, now they’re just a little better informed [laughs].

No, actually I think oftentimes journalists who are lazy and using Wikipedia get caught out; and there are lots more journalists who understand how to use Wikipedia correctly. [As a journalist] you go out to interview the head of a company, or a certain politician and you don’t know much about them. So this way you can quickly get some background and, also, read the discussion pages to find out what are the things the public don’t quite know.

During the rest of our interview – conducted mainly on the 14.30 from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington (carriage D) – he talked about a broad range of subjects, from the neutrality of Wikipedia and internet censorship, to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, to David Cameron and the “big society”, to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. He also offered a fascinating answer when I asked him whether he votes.

The interview will form part of a piece for a future issue of the New Statesman.