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The founders of Wikia have announced a new site allowing anyone to create their own online news and opinion zines.

OpenServing came into being after Wikia purchased community sports news site ArmchairGM. Robert Andrews sat down with Wikia CEO Gil Penchina at the Le Web 3 conference in Paris in December to discuss the latest in user-generated content.

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You announced the launch of OpenServing at Le Web 3. Can you tell us what that's all about?

We started with open source. Mainstream technology people said "that's crazy, how can you give away a product for free that people pay millions of dollars for?" You see that the business model today is in charging for other services like consulting.

As we looked at free content, we saw the same thing. We provide the storage and the bandwidth and the processors, you can make the money from advertisers and we'll figure out another business model.

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How does it differ from Wikia itself, and from anything else on the market?

You can go and get blog software and pay someone to host it and you can make the ad revenue. With OpenServing, you get collaborative blog software for free and you get to keep all the ad revenue. We compete with people who offer blog hosting and charge for it.

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How easy do you make it for the users? How managed is your software?

We manage all aspects of it; we build vertical-specific topics for you, we have the collaboration software that lets you invite other people in to write and read, we provide all the operating support, 24/7 customer support.

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Do you intend to make money from this in any way?

We do [intend to make money], we're just not sure how yet. Maybe it's value-added services on top of that. It's the old saying of 'get there first'.

Wikia is about documenting facts and providing information in a very structured sense. ArmchairGM, which is the company we bought, is more about collaborative blogging on news and opinion, so it's much more about what happened today.

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Would you put OpenServing clearly in the news bracket with the likes of Yahoo! News?

We actually think it's going to be more like Time-Warner - today's news, today's opinion. That's what we've seen in sports - people are posting the latest news and then they talk about it; people are also posting opinions like 'why haven't they fired this player yet?'. It's static content but it's much more topical.

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A year from now, what is the front page of OpenServing going to look like - a true news service?

I'm not sure we have one front page. I think a year from now, we'll have 500 pages and people won't view us as just one place to go. Just like people view Wired and a cooking magazine as two completely different topics, although they may be owned by the same publisher. That's why Time-Warner to me is a good analogy, they have a whole stable of publications and, as a reader, you don't care that Sports Illustrated or Entertainment Weekly are owned by the same publisher, you view it as 'this is my place'.

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Do you think this is something people from old established media have a hard time getting to grips with?

The concept of a bunch of magazines on different topics resonates with them. They have a harder time believing that you can write an encyclopedia with volunteers.

One or two percent of our readers may turn into contributors; what we see is that the content improves over time - that's in the nature of the wiki, that if something is wrong, the visitors come in and fix it. With this new ranking and sorting system that we have with OpenServing, the good content goes to the top, the bad content goes to the bottom.

What you find is there is this group of people in this one percent that for some reason is compelled to fix content - so the average user may come in and just look at the homepage, there's another group of people that goes into just the bad content and tries to fix it.

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What do you think of the notion of 'citizen journalism'?

I'm a big fan of citizen journalism and I would love to see a city news and opinion version of OpenServing in every city and town; there's no reason not to.

We don't institute anything. We provide services and we wait to see what people are willing to use it for.

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What do you think of the differences between the people who will be your amateur producers and big media?

They all provide a lens into the world of information. There's too much information being produced every day and people can't process it all. For me, the media is doing a great job of giving me a filter. When I read the Herald Tribune versus the Financial Times, I get a very different lens on the world and our goal is just to provide another lens.

One of the things you see in the traditional print business is that the economics are getting worse and worse, so they are doing less and less local news and more and more international or wire feed news. So it may be that the only way to get good local news in every village or town is to have citizen journalists.

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Would you call this a 'social business'?

Absolutely, Jimmy Wales, who is the founder of both Wikipedia and Wikia, has many social ambitions and we try to do good while making money - with our investors we've been very clear that, given the choice, we're going to do good first and make money later.

We have 38 employees and two rounds of investors - the first round of investors included Joi Ito, who's ont he board of ICANN; Dan Gillmor, who's involved in citizen democracy projects; Mitch Kapor at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Marc Andreeson, the Netscape founder; Reed Hoffman, the LinkedIn founder; I was actually one of the angels; and Bessamer and Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Networks were the lead investors. They're all very socially conscious people. This latest round of investment was led by Bezos, Amazon did the round, and Bezos was personally interested in the mission and the goals.

We're very excited about the notion. We think that, by giving the ad revenue opportunity to the volunteers, we can enable people to make money writing news magazines and editorial for their small towns and villages, especially in the parts of the world where the mainstream media doesn't cover the news any more because it's not important enough.

Whether it's the local football league or the high school or university meetings or local town issues, we think we may have an opportunity to help people make money by publishing their own local magazines with news and opinion.

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Do you have ambitions to create UK versions?

We're here in Europe trying to get more contributors in the UK and France. Today, over half of our contributors are outside the US.

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The managing director of Yahoo! Europe told us he sees user-generated content as a "fantastic business opportunity" for the portal, whereas you are giving producers all of the ad revenue. Do you share concerns about big media companies retaining authors' rights and profiteering off their work?

Absolutely. We require that all of our contributions be open content so that they can be re-used on a commercial or non-commercial basis by anybody. All 50,000 articles on OpenServing are under free licences so they can be commercially or non-commercially used by anybody.

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Published 20 December, 2006 by Robert Andrews

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