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April 4, 2018, 12:18 p.m.

What a failed media startup can teach us about involving readers in reporting

The Canadian startup OpenFile was a bet on collaboration between journalists and their audience: “We learned that we shouldn’t dismiss [a story] just because it’s not articulated in a way that we would as journalists.”

When OpenFile launched in 2010, the tight-knit Canadian media community reacted with slightly skeptical enthusiasm. Legacy newspapers including The Globe and Mail and National Post said OpenFile was going to revolutionize online news…or at least “redefine” it.

Behind the headlines was an elegant concept: Ask readers to tell you what they think is important and make editorial decisions around that. Two years later, the media industry watched with equal fascination as OpenFile suspended publication, went through a bitter fight with unpaid freelancers, and eventually shut down its site.

“Canada doesn’t try things twice,” said former OpenFile editor David Topping. When a media company attempts something new and fails, it’s used as an example for why that idea should never be attempted again. Yet the organization produced lots of compelling stories by putting its audience at the center of its work, proving that citizens who are media savvy and engaged in their communities will participate if a path is cleared for them. The part that OpenFile didn’t figure out — and serves as a warning to media startups today — is how to fund reader engagement so that journalists can dedicate more time to reaching larger segments of their community.

Huge value in local knowledge

The idea of opening a file has a certain charm to it. Digital files were supposed to accumulate knowledge as readers added links, comments, photos, videos, and documents about issues in their communities. On good days, that’s exactly how OpenFile worked. Using postal codes as geolocators, readers in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Halifax, and Ottawa could open files and readers who lived close by could add information. If the file ticked the usual editorial boxes for a good story, an editor would assign the file to a reporter.

Right away, OpenFile found “huge value” in local knowledge the legacy media were missing, said Wilf Dinnick, OpenFile’s founder. Reporters also started off further ahead in their reporting, he said. “We had contacts, direct emails, and a whole bunch of information.”

Once a file was opened, it never closed. Journalists were encouraged to update their stories, make corrections transparently, and even publish stories before they were finished. Lorax B. Horne, a journalist for OpenFile in Halifax, described each story as “a link in the chain that could keep linking forward in time,” eventually building an “archive of local news knowledge that could grow over time.”

These reader-initiated stories disrupt the traditional media model for telling stories. At stage one of the model, a single person opens a file. In OpenFile’s case, this person is usually someone highly engaged in their community, educated, and media-savvy. Once that person opens a file, they have an incentive to share it with others (stage two), including stakeholders who are less engaged but might add their own ideas. OpenFile’s main contribution occurs at the model’s third stage, where a local issue is transformed into a story relevant to a wider audience. The hope is that some of the people in the third stage will then move to the first stage and start the process over again. If each stage works together, “you end up with a really effective model,” Dinnick said.

In traditional journalism practice, a journalist and/or their editor decides what the story will be and then shares it with the wider community, Dinnick said. “Very often, the story that you start with at the beginning of the day looks a lot like the one you end up with in the newsroom.” When that model is flipped on its head, stories that sometimes seem ridiculous reveal themselves as important. “We learned that we shouldn’t dismiss [a story] just because it’s not articulated in a way that we would as journalists,” he said.

Many OpenFile alumni point to the 204 Beech story as an early sign of success. (Note: The site’s content wasn’t well archived, so all we can link to is stripped-down versions at the Internet Archive.) It began with a 100-year-old cottage on a large lot in The Beach neighborhood on Toronto’s east side. Geoff Teehan, cofounder of digital agency Teehan+Lax and now a product design director at Facebook, had purchased the property a few months before. He planned to demolish the house and build a new one that could accommodate his wife, who had been diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder that required her to use a wheelchair. They were about to apply for a building permit when the neighbors got wind that the property would be destroyed and claimed that the house had historical value and shouldn’t be changed.

Jon Lax, Teehan+Lax’s other namesake cofounder, opened a file on 204 Beech and had the first story in his inbox a week later. OpenFile was “super responsive,” Lax said. “It was reassuring to know that someone was paying attention. Having a third party say ‘this is important enough to talk about’ is pretty important.”

Josh O’Kane, the reporter assigned to the file, ended up covering 204 Beech for most of the summer, culminating in a story that illustrated a wider problem in the city’s heritage department. O’Kane obtained city staff correspondence showing that the department was understaffed, with only a sole employed researcher at the time who could review contested buildings — illustrating Teehan’s point that the heritage department was “in dire need of a makeover.” Because the OpenFile editorial team refused to drop the issue and continued to devote resources to its investigation, O’Kane was able to write a local story that highlighted a citywide problem that transcended the standard Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) debate. “It showed me there is no story too small to keep in contact with people, because you never know if that story has another thread that you could be writing about,” he said.

Lax credits the website’s design and the quick response of editor-in-chief Kathy Vey for his positive experience with OpenFile. Without such a simple process, he doubts he would have known how to suggest a story to a journalist. While he is aware that other news organizations include “suggest a story” forms on their websites, he thinks it would be difficult to find and that it might lead to an unmonitored inbox. Even if the reporter had come to a different conclusion, Lax said he still would have considered the story a success because the system worked as he thought it should.

Craig Silverman, who helped launch OpenFile as its digital journalism director (and who has since gained attention as BuzzFeed’s chief reporter on fake news), remembers the 204 Beech experience as “exhilarating.” It was one of the first times OpenFile saw the full potential of its model: People were coalescing around a geographic area, and the people who lived in the neighborhood wanted to know more and to contribute to the reporting. They also wanted to see the story spread outside of the community, showing that the more people you involve in your journalism, the bigger your network becomes. “We felt like, if a lot of the stories we did were like this, then OpenFile would be a really powerful thing,” Silverman said.

Ron Tite, a creative director and now CEO of ad agency Church+State, was the reader behind another successful story in 2012. At the time, Ron lived near Liberty Village, an up-and-coming neighborhood on Toronto’s west side that was becoming well known for its trendy bars, cafes, and creative residents. The only problem was the abattoir where thousands of pigs came to be slaughtered each day. The stench that wafted from the building on a humid summer’s day was enough to make people nauseous. Ron wondered why the city would promote urban development in a neighborhood that housed something so horrible. So he opened a file.

Tite received a phone call from an OpenFile reporter and heard from Mike Layton, the city council member for his ward, who reiterated the city’s perspective on the abattoir. From the OpenFile story, Tite learned that the slaughterhouse was the only downtown employment opportunity for many of the people who had lived in the neighborhood for decades — long before he and his trendy neighbors had arrived.

Tite found himself sharing the story with his community and explaining the value of the abattoir whenever he heard someone complain about its smell. More importantly, Tite said, the experience “took the blinders off” and gave him a greater appreciation for the place he lived. “I didn’t know anything about the large immigrant population that lived in the area and worked [at the abattoir],” he said. “There was this whole section of the community that I was willing to write off because of a smell.” (The abattoir eventually closed in 2014 and may soon be converted into condos.)

A few other OpenFile stories of note

  • Forever21 comes to Ottawa: A reader in Ottawa asked why a storefront in an Ottawa mall had been closed for so long. An OpenFile reporter called the general manager of the mall who told her it was going to become a Forever21 store. OpenFile broke the story before Forever21 had a chance to make its announcement, making it one of the bureau’s most popular stories.
  • BikeFile: The city of Toronto released statistics on cyclist deaths in the city, and OpenFile decided to portray the problem nationally using an interactive map. Some cities wouldn’t release their data, so OpenFile asked readers to fill in the gaps in their communities.
  • The Missing Poppy: OpenFile placed poppies on a map of Toronto to show where soldiers lived before they fought and died in World War I. A reader wrote in to say that her uncle was missing from the map, leading OpenFile to publish a story about a soldier whose life was almost erased from the public ledger.

Problems in the pipeline

J-Source recognized Dinnick as Canadian Newsperson of the Year in 2012 for “engaging citizens with local, public service journalism in an independent environment, without the backing or safety net of working within an established news organization.”

But while OpenFile was celebrating its journalistic successes, the company was still trying to figure out how to make money. OpenFile started with several million dollars in investment from an anonymous angel investor. By Dinnick’s calculations, it cost a newspaper about $1,000 to print a story. He hoped to produce stories for slightly less and sell them back to the newspapers for a profit. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get it off the ground fast enough to keep OpenFile running.

In September 2012, OpenFile suspended publication. Today, it only exists as a homepage and a Twitter account frozen in time.

These are the three key engagement lessons we think can be gleaned from OpenFile’s sudden departure from the Canadian media scene.

OpenFile Takeaway No. 1: Know what you are

Before you can ask for a moment of someone’s time — be they a source, a volunteer, or a colleague — figure out exactly what you want to achieve and build an organization that is powerfully designed to make it happen.

If he could do it again, Dinnick said he would have spent the first few months focusing on how to make the user flow intuitive — before raising any money — and he would have then sold that product to other media companies. “It would be all about utility: getting the OpenFile widget on to as many news websites as possible, and nailing down the user flow to make sure that anybody can suggest a story,” he said. That’s not to say that the editors and journalists weren’t providing value for the company and the community — but producing stories pulled focus away from OpenFile’s true intention, which was to improve community engagement and get those stories into the world as efficiently as possible.

OpenFile Takeaway No. 2: Community engagement is a full-time job

Be realistic about the amount of resources that community engagement requires and measure success based on what you are trying to achieve (see Takeaway No. 1).

The struggle to find a revenue stream pushed OpenFile to focus on clicks to attract ad dollars. At some point, OpenFile started to shift into something different, said Neal Ozano, the site’s Halifax editor. It wanted to be “this community-minded thing,” but it also wanted to be competitive with other media outlets; that meant content needed to be pumped out daily, which didn’t fit the speed at which community-suggested stories evolved. Editors were trying their best to drum up story ideas from the community, but they were also busy assigning stories, editing them, and interacting with readers on social media.

Eventually, it became apparent that it would be impossible to forge strong community connections with only one editor in each city, so OpenFile hired additional editors for each city and a community editor in Toronto responsible for social media outreach. But even with the new hires, Silverman said OpenFile asked too much of its editors and writers.

“I think a lot of news organizations have realized that community engagement is a full-time job,” he said. If you’re going to expect journalists to engage with the community, you have to appreciate that it takes effort and certain skills. Editors need to figure out ways to help journalists do this type of work, perhaps by forming teams that can buttress the amount of work that is required, he said.

It’s also important for editors to be realistic about output, Silverman said. If editors only focus on the number of stories that a journalist produces, they’re ignoring other important indicators, like the amount of engagement that a community has around that journalist’s work. The infrastructure of managing and rewarding community engagement properly is “the big thing” that editors and managers need to think about, he said.

OpenFile Takeaway No. 3: Meet your audience where they are

Identify your audience and go to the places where they hang out, both online and in person. Keep in mind that this takes a lot of time (see Takeaway No. 2), so be thoughtful about how you use your resources.

“We underestimated just how hard it would be to attract new readers and new story ideas. I found that social media and word-of-mouth weren’t nearly enough for what I was trying to do in Toronto, which I hoped they would be,” said Topping, the Toronto editor. It’s not necessarily the case that if you build it, they will come. “There’s a step before they find your publication that you might be incredibly disconnected from,” Topping said. It’s not that people don’t want to help or don’t have enough useful information — but “you have to make an effort to reach them where they are,” Silverman said.

Consequently, the people who were finding OpenFile’s website were only a subset of the audience that editors hoped to reach: mainly the sort of engaged, educated, and media-savvy people who had the time and interest to suggest a story. That made it more likely that OpenFile would receive a certain type of story idea, making it more of an urban issues website than a broader news site that gave underserved communities a platform.

The reader-suggested stories that OpenFile did produce had the ability to “foster an understanding and caring for the places that people live,” Topping said. Done well, those stories also produced empathy and engagement for the journalistic process. But in the end, OpenFile couldn’t maintain the flow of reader-suggested stories that it needed to sustain the site. “For a while [story suggestions] came in, then they sort of petered out,” said Ozano, the Halifax editor. It became easier to run the website like a regular news site and push freelancers to find more stories.

As for journalists who want to integrate community engagement into their work, Silverman’s advice is simple: “Introduce yourself with a sense of openness and humility, and say: You know more than I do. Here’s what I want to try. Here’s how I would love it if you could help. What might you be able to do?” It’s not about throwing up a form and expecting magic to happen, but actually doing the work to get out there in front of people and meet them.

Some of the people we spoke to describe an OpenFile-shaped hole in journalism that has never been filled. Others are more optimistic that new companies like Hearken have stepped in to fill the gap and journalists are becoming more engaged with their audiences on social media and live events. Regardless of its mark on the media landscape, OpenFile shows that communities have untold stories they are eager to share — and that journalists can work with them successfully when they’re given resources to engage with readers in prolonged, sustainable ways.

Ashley Renders is a video producer for the National Post and a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, Leon Postma, and Jay Rosen contributed to this post, which originally ran at the Membership Puzzle Project at NYU.

Photo of file folders by Mary Hutchison used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 4, 2018, 12:18 p.m.
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