Over the past few weeks, I've found myself having almost-identical conversations with several journalists. The gist: Wikipedia has become an essential reference work for them.
Yeah, yeah, it's user-generated, and just about anybody can make changes in it, and there are a variety of Wikipedia-abuse horror stories. Of course. But what these excellent journalists were saying is that those issues are trivial compared to the benefits of having such a comprehensive source of information on just about everything imaginable.
Wikipedia's hardly a new phenomenon—it's been around (and terrific) for years. But the journalists I've talked to are catching up to what millions already know: It has clearly matured into a valuable tool for people (journalists and otherwise) looking for a fast overview of information on subjects large and small, obvious and obscure. Would any of these journalists go to print (or web) with something they found on Wikipedia? Of course not, not without independent confirmation. But as a fast, easy, omnibus knowledge-lookup tool, there's simply nothing like it. If the accuracy rate is 95% (and it's probably a lot better than that), that's fine, for the purposes it's being used for. For more definitive information, you'll look elsewhere--or do some reporting.
Wikipedia's also become a very good news-reporting service. Check it on a breaking story. The ability Wikipedia members to assemble a complete and thorough report on something current is rather amazing. To pick something from today's headlines, look at the Wikipedia entry on murdered Washington Redskins player Sean Taylor. You really couldn't ask for a better digest of this complicated story.
And yes, Virginia, Wikipedia is created and curated entirely by its users. That blows a lot of journalists' minds. You mean there are no professional editors? Nope--it's other users who are checking and changing and fine-tuning (often constantly) the contents. There are even well-organized systems in place to prevent the abuse that's become folklore. That's a tribute to the wisdom of the crowds that Wikipedia is based in—and another reason why so many of us are jazzed about the potential of user-generated content.
If you're a journalist who automatically poo-poos Wikipedia because of stereotypes that it's out-of-control amateur hour, look (and think) again. As the smart journalists I've been talking to lately realize, it long ago became a very powerful and useful basic research tool—and another example of how the Internet is demolishing our preconceived notions about how information is created.