Hitwise, via Reuters, reports that Wikipedia's traffic has grown 154 percent during the past year. It now threatens to surpass traffic to the New York Times site — one of the few successful news brands online — and other major news sites.
What are we to take away from this?
First, Wikipedia is not an online brand, but a publishing phenomenon where users provide the content. It's become a trusted (or at least well-known) source of information and is also an expression of several of the Internet's primary characteristics (and, arguably, virtues) — decentralization, openness, collaboration.
The fact that Wikipedia may soon overtake the NY Times also speaks to something we've been saying for a while — news has become a commodity online. For the most part, news is just information — columnists are an exception and why the NY Times believes it can charge for that content. I don't particularly care whether that information comes from CNN, Yahoo! News, Google News, Topix or USA Today. (Local news, for several reasons, is different.)
When it comes to news, brand (by itself) is of limited value. Brand must be thought about holistically and include the user experience. Breadth of content, features, usability (and, in most cases, local content) will separate successful news sites from the €œalso-rans.€
People like Wikipedia and its news site, Wikinews, because of their €œdemocratic€ flavor and scope, which are considerably more comprehensive than U.S. corporate news outlets (they're also global). The same can be said in a different way for blogs — they offer different coverage or different points of view than the mainstream media.
This is a time of opportunity and tremendous challenge for newspapers, notwithstanding growing online revenues. Online should not merely be an electronic extension of the print product; it is fundamentally different and has to be reconceived accordingly — from top to bottom.
Kudos to publishers that are experimenting and taking chances (such as the NY Times and Knight Ridder) — a truly successful (in the broadest sense) online newspaper model has not yet emerged — but it likely will in time.