Making news reporting sustainable

What is this about?

WeTell.News (WeTell) was started by news publications. Our aim is to make quality, fair and accurate news reporting sustainable.

How does it work?

Anyone can become a member of our site. Members can create curated news bulletins. They can publish them as often as they choose. Their bulletins can be viewed on WeTell or, more often, by being embedded in other websites, like the news publications that are part of WeTell.

The system keeps track of how frequently bulletins are viewed and how often particular stories are clicked on. Members can also vote up a news story if they believe the quality is good, and down-vote it if they think it is poorly written, researched or edited. They can also up or down vote the curated news bulletins.

We have designed the system so that this will reward frequently viewed and clicked bulletins and stories that have a high number of up-votes compared to down-votes.

Well-received bulletins and articles are also featured more prominently.

But how will this raise money for publications?

Anyone can join WeTell as a member for a reasonable fee. (We're thinking about the equivalent of $10 per month.) As a member you can:

  • Comment on bulletins and the news items comprising bulletins.
  • Up-vote and down-vote bulletins, the news items comprising the bulletins and the comments.
  • Create curated news bulletins, for which you will be compensated if those bulletins do well (i.e. receive a preponderance of up-votes and are viewed a lot).
  • From time to time decisions on the strategic direction of WeTell will be put to the vote of members.
  • Be part of a real solution to the problem of there simply not being enough money to pay for quality news reporting.

Why is this needed?

It has become extremely difficult for high-quality news publishing companies to stay in business. We hope WeTell provides a way to change this.

What's the status of WeTell?

Presently, WeTell is a prototype. Our current plan is to go fully live in the last quarter of 2022. While we're still in the prototype phase, the data on the website may be reset quite often.

What are the challenges to publishing?

Until a couple of decades ago, people bought or subscribed to newspapers, typically daily. Newspapers also received income from advertisements, including the classified section. There was a high degree of brand loyalty: people got most of their news from a few sources.

It was a sustainable model that worked well for a long time. But that's changed:

  • People read their news stories online, usually without being charged by the publication that spent substantial money producing the story.
  • Publications typically compete for advertising against millions of other websites, including fake news ones, hit chasing sites and sites that have absolutely nothing to do with news, including porn, pet videos and celebrity gossip sites. Further, the advertising model is now dominated by Google and websites that show Google Ads typically earn a pittance, even if they are well visited and producing high quality news.
  • Classified adverts are simply not a part of news websites. Sites like EBay and Gumtree have cornered the ad hoc private goods and services market, and birth, marriage and death notices are now typically on social media.
  • Brand loyalty has lost its shine because on a daily basis, one typically reads news stories from multiple ad hoc sources, brought to one's attention by friends sharing articles on social media.

All this is compounded by other problems.

People post news items on Facebook and Twitter, but most of the time, instead of driving traffic to the original publisher, users will simply read the headline and blurb on the social media platform, and engage, through comments or "likes", solely on the social media platform instead of on the publisher's site. Facebook and Twitter get the eyeballs and the engagement, and consequently the advertising, for work they didn't produce. The actual producers of the content get very little if anything.

Then there's the proliferation of news curation sites and emails. Some of these are compiled with care and of reasonable quality; others, like, simply plagiarise or distort original news articles. But the net result is the same: barely any traffic goes to the original publisher.

WeTell offers a way for news to be curated but in a way that benefits the publishers and creates a symbiotic relationship between curators and publishers, instead of the current conflictual one.

But wasn't printing expensive compared to publishing on the web?

While the cost of publishing has come down because most news publishers now don't have to worry about printing, it is still extremely expensive to run a publication dedicated to producing high-quality, original, fact-checked, accurate, fair news stories. For a typical news story, the publisher has to pay for the reporter's travel costs and labour, insurance (reporting can be risky), editing, subbing, and fact-checking. It usually costs thousands of rands for a straightforward story, from conception to publication.

But are you offering members enough?

We hope so. Certainly we hope people sign up to be able to comment and vote on stories. But we believe most people will sign up too because they believe that it is necessary to pay towards sustaining high-quality news reporting. Many news sites solicit voluntary contributions, for example through membership or tax-deductible donations.

But the erosion of brand loyalty makes it difficult for people to choose one specific publication over another. By creating a pool of respected media publications who benefit from WeTell, we offer an easy and attractive way for people to support multiple quality publications.

How can WeTell avoid the perverse incentives driving Facebook and Twitter?

Facebook and Twitter have only a small incentive to provide their users with high-quality, accurate, fair news. The incentives of their user engagement models accentuate inter-user conflict, controversy and sensation. Truthfulness is a secondary concern.

Our user engagement model, i.e. voting on bulletins and news items together with viewer metrics, has a very different purpose: to drive traffic to high-quality news reporting. We rely on the wisdom of the crowd to drive quality to the top and the dregs to the bottom.

Wisdom of the crowd? Aren't you being a little optimistic?

There are excellent precedents showing that the wisdom of the crowd can drive quality on the internet. Perhaps the two finest examples are Wikipedia and Stack Overflow.

Is WeTell a direct challenge to Twitter and Facebook?

It would be beneficial for the quality of news if people dropped Facebook and Twitter as their sources of curated news. Facebook and Twitter may, perhaps, have benefits to society, but, in their current guises, they are a threat to quality news publishing.

What about languages other than English?

We would welcome publishers in other languages. The WeTell website has been implemented so that our user interface can be translated into other languages.

Do you intend to expand beyond South Africa?

We would be delighted if quality news publishers from other countries join WeTell.