Toronto’s launches, hopes to redefine online journalism

May 11, 2010 / National Post /

While some observers are predicting the “slow, sad death” of journalism, one new kid on the block is trying to revolutionize the way news is created and consumed online.

OpenFile, a Toronto-based news site that launched Tuesday in beta format, emphasizes local stories. Much like Wikipedia, the site’s content relies on contributions from users, though reporters still write the stories and the submissions are monitored by a staff of experienced journalists and editors.

The site was founded by Wilf Dinnick, a former foreign correspondent for CNN and reporter for CBC and CTV. In an April 2010 blog post introducing his concept, he wrote:
Over the past few years I’ve watched the news business change dramatically. Big media companies have struggled to figure out how to adapt to the way people are getting their news in the digital age. My biggest fear was that real journalism, stories that affect you and your community, would get lost as traditional news outlets scrambled to come up with a quick fix that would lure back their dwindling audiences.
The idea for the OpenFile model came partly from seeing how other news organization had failed in their stabs at citizen journalism. “You can’t be a little bit pregnant,” Dinnick said in a phone interview Tuesday, explaining that an online model had to be tackled whole-heartedly. “We’re not a newspaper.
We don’t expect to be a newspaper.” Instead, he wants to focus on perfecting OpenFile’s web model.

As the name suggests, the site’s content is based on files generated by users, who are invited to “pitch” story ideas to the editors — the more local, the better. For example, a story about a particular street might be too small or inconsequential for a large daily newspaper to assign to a reporter, said Dinnick, but OpenFile, which doesn’t have to worry about overhead costs, would gladly take it on. 

The story ideas are then either assigned to a professional journalist or put up on the site for community review. (Some recent story pitches include: “What can be done about empty storefronts and eyesore vacant lots?”and “14 Division gets a new look.”)

Once a story is published on the site, readers can post comments, add images and videos, and pitch follow-up stories, like a community billboard of news. Within the OpenFile framework, it seems that news is less of a static document and more of an ongoing group project. From the OpenFile blog:
OpenFile is committed to building a working model for journalism that is democratic but not unmonitored, collaborative but not chaotic, and individually targeted but not aggregated by robots. Local news is a conversation among newsmakers, news-gatherers and news readers. We want OpenFile to be the place where that conversation lives, grows and generates new ideas.
OpenFile’s content will decidedly be hard news. “No burrito reviews or club listings,” said Dinnick. Once a story idea is approved by editors, the journalist is expected to write a “well-balanced, thoughtful piece.”

Quality control seems important to Dinnick; even though ideas are submitted by users, everything else but be okayed by the team before it goes online, including the reporters, the stories and even the user comments. Realizing how easily a message board can turn into a free-for-all war of words, the site’s comments are moderated. (Anonymous posting is barred altogether.Anyone who wants to contribute must create an account and sign in.) “We’re setting the tone early,” Dinnick said.

The site has three years of funding from a private venture capitalist on Bay Street. Once that money runs out, OpenFile will be supported by ad revenue. An emphasis on local content will help attract advertisers looking to target specific communities, said Dinnick. Each story will be “geotagged” — a postal code will be attached so users can look up content relevant to their area.

While Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab considers OpenFile an experimental, bottom-up approach to news, others aren’t buying into the hype. Toronto Life has pointed out a few practical problems with OpenFile’s model:
The site depends largely on tips, and as anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows, for every good lead from the public there are 50 duds (some of the pitches on OpenFile sound more appropriate for a neighbourhood newsletter). Also, the user forum could turn into a full-time babysitting job for the moderators (mosey over to any comment section of a Globe story to get a sense of how open discussions easily turn into bitch fits). Speaking of, since anyone can register to get access to these forums, what’s going stop a reporter from a rival publication from signing up to scoop OpenFile?
Dinnick, meanwhile, is optimistic about OpenFile, saying that his team is focused on a long term project, one that he hopes to spread to other cities — once all the kinks are worked out. “We think we have a workable model,” he said, “[but] it’s an evolving process that will take time.”