Dan Gillmor says the project strikes him as naive. Joi Ito opposed it, but now that it looks like it's going ahead he says he'll do what he can to help it succeed. Others, like Ross Mayfield and Angela Beesley are enthusiastic supporters.
As somebody who has worked as a professional journalist for over a decade, but who also believes that greater democratization of the news media is necessary and good, I have a few thoughts about the Wikinews plan:
1. Neutrality: Can a wikinews really be neutral? In the discussion, the most prominently-cited models of citizen journalism are South Korea's OhMyNews and Indymedia. Neither of these is neutral. English-readers are more familiar with Indymedia's strong political activism. What non-Korean readers may not be aware of is that OhMyNews is also very political. It's reader/contributor community are strong supporters of South Korea's current president, Roh Moo-hyun and his Uri party. Ohmynews played a key role in getting Roh elected, and in making it politically impossible for his impeachment earlier this year to stick. Opposition party leaders talk about the "Ohmynews" people as a major obstacle to their political success. If you want to read English analysis of Ohmynews and its agendas visit the South Korea-based blogger, Marmot. He reads the thing in Korean every day. Ask him if he thinks Ohmynews is neutral.
I wonder if it's possible to expect volunteer reporters to be neutral. People who contribute to Wikipedia are contributing information they already have, because it's in their area of expertise. But what is the incentive - if you're not being paid - to go out and gather news? To go out and conduct interviews, investigate, travel, miss dinner with your family, get harrassed by security guards for poking your nose into none-of-your business, (and in some countries, get detained by police) etc.? It would seem to be that the main reason for bothering with all of this would be a burning desire to expose something you think the public needs to know. An environmental abuse, a human rights abuse, a police beating, outrageous corruption by a politician, a cool new social phenomenon, a great scientific development, or whatever. Your choice of focus is naturally going to be biased, and if you're Republican, you're going to want to expose what you think is under-exposed bad behavior by democrats, and if you're a Democrat, it's vice versa.
Why do people blog? Because they can advance their agendas or personal interests in some way. There's a reason why blogs aren't objective - especially ones people aren't paid to write.
In the end, neutrality and objectivity are myths anyway. They're ideals journalists strive for and never reach. One of the reasons why blogs have had such great appeal is that the authors are open about their biases. That way you can triangulate what they're telling you and know what context to put it in - something that's hard to do with mainstream news media, which claim to be objective, "fair and balanced", or whatever, when they really aren't. Wikinews will lose a lot of credibility very quickly if it claims to be neutral and objective, but ends up being perceived as having a liberal, or American, or whatever bias.
If a wikipedia reporter who reports on environmental issues also works for the Sierra Club. I want to know that. Or if they work for an auto company, I want to know that. If your citizen-reporters pay their rent with other jobs, it will be almost impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. Then there are the personal issues. If a wikinews environmental reporter's aunt died of cancer from polluted ground water, I would like to know. A mainstream media environmental reporter doesn't generally disclose his or her personal agendas (and being human we can't avoid having them no matter what story we're covering, if we're honest with ourselves). This is a huge failing of mainstream news media, in my view, and contributes to the erosion of public trust.
And let's be honest here. Wikipedia DOES have bias -- a white, male, developed-world bias -- in the topics its members choose to write about. As my colleague Ethan Zuckerman likes to point out, Wikipedia has a lot more information about Tolkien's Middle Earth than it does about most of Africa. If that isn't bias, I don't know what is.
Maybe a better approach, rather than claiming to be neutral or unbiased - which is a loaded claim - is to say that wikinews reflects the point-of-view and reporting abilities of its members ... so if you don't like what it's reporting, join it and contribute what you think will be better reports.
2. Speed of reporting: It's going to be hard to present yourself as an alternative news source to AP and Reuters unless you can compete with them on speed of reporting. They turn breaking stories around in minutes sometimes. Then of course you've got all kinds of live broadcast reporting. I find it hard to imagine that Wikinews' story-editing-by-committee approach would be very fast. News often happens at inconvenient times when people aren't in their office or at their computers - and are hard to reach unless they've got the journalists' habit of never going anywhere without their cellphone, blackberry, etc. News organizations that are best at covering breaking news are not consensus-driven democracies. They are run by brilliant autocratic editors who make tough decisions very fast. Decisions about when a story is ready to run, when to authorize tens of thousands dollars to cover a breaking story within minutes after the story breaks, etc.
This leads me to think that Wikinews may be best suited not so much for breaking news than for in-depth investigative reporting. These are the kinds of stories that mainstream news media increasingly do not have the time or budgets to support. But strong, hard-hitting, factually accurate investigative reporting is vitally important if you want citizens of a democratic society to be properly informed.
If I was advising Wikinews I would probably suggest focusing on 2 areas: 1. Investigative reporting of stories not yet taken up by the mainstream press; 2. Breaking news that Reuters & AP, etc. aren't reporting, but which the wikinews community thinks is important. 3. Alternative angles on stories that the wikinews community thinks the mainstream media didn't get right. I would not suggest trying to be a comprehensive total-news service at the beginning. I would focus on filling the holes that the mainstream fails to fill - and from time to time proving that the wiki community reporting can catch important stuff the mainstream media misses. As a consumer of news, that's where I would find value in Wikinews. Especially in the beginning when I'd be more inclined to look at more familiar (and faster) news sources first before checking out Wikinews.