08/11/2017 11:53 EDT | Updated 08/14/2017 10:04 EDT

Wikipedia founder talks fake news and the need for neutrality at Montreal event

MONTREAL — Once dismissed as unreliable, Wikipedia has emerged as a trusted source of information in an era of fake news, its founder said Friday.

Jimmy Wales said the free online encyclopedia has become stronger and more accurate with time, although he maintained it was never as inaccurate as its critics claimed.

"We always wanted to get to quality," he said during a panel discussion in Montreal. "When there would be an error the press would make a big deal, but they never made a big deal about how passionate we were about trying to fix it."

Wales was in Montreal Friday for the opening of the annual Wikimania conference.

The three-day event is gathering about 1,000 people for a series of training sessions, presentations and workshops that focus on the future of free knowledge projects.

In an hour-long panel discussion with McGill University professor Gabriella Coleman, Wales said Wikipedia's reputation has soared as people seek out neutral sources in an era of fake news and intense partisanship.

Wales said that while true false news sites have had little impact on Wikipedia because of the encyclopedia's commitment to checking sources, it was still a challenge to maintain "a real sense of neutrality" in a time when public voices tend to be loud and divergent.

"I wish the New York Times would occasionally write 'the neutrality of this article is disputed' at the top of their articles like we do to acknowledge, as we acknowledge, we're still struggling, we're grappling here," he said.

Wales said that as traditional media outlets have declined in quality, Wikipedia has stepped up to satisfy people's desire for unbiased information.

To take the concept further, he is launching a separate crowd-funded news website that will be produced by a team of paid journalists working with community volunteers.

In an interview, he said the site, called WikiTribune, will have no advertisers, no paywalls, and will be funded by subscribers.

"I've been joking it's a series of bad business decisions, but that's how I've built my career," he said.

Wales said his project will avoid the pitfalls of a business model based on ads, which he said has forced traditional media outlets towards clickbait and "fluffy stories."

He said WikiTribune will instead focus on investigative journalism, features and explanatory content that is good enough to convince people to support the service.

"We have to produce content such that at the end of a story people say 'this is different, I understand the world in a way I didn't before, this deserves to exist,'" he said.