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May 11, 2010, 9 a.m.

“Always collaborate”: Say hello to OpenFile, the local news site putting those new media maxims to the test

The thing about new media maxims is that, all too often, they remain just that — maxims. Smart ideas that guide our thinking, yes, but that don’t get much tangible testing in the hectic, messy space where journalism lives.

Enter OpenFile, the Toronto-based local news site launching this morning in beta form. The outlet, under the leadership of Wilf Dinnick (founding editor and CEO), Kathy Vey (editor-in-chief), and Craig Silverman (digital journalism director), combines some of the core maxims of new media — community engagement, emphasis on locality, bottom-up approaches to news — with another core principle: experimentation.

We designed OpenFile to function as a community information utility that is both responsive to and directed by its users. If you’re a concerned citizen who wants to get more involved with your community, you should join us. If you belong to a local charity or community action group and want to share information about your issues and mission, you should join us, too. We want to engage our readers in an open discussion about what’s really happening around Toronto, not just tell them what we think they should know about.

Structurally and editorially, the site is centered, as its name suggests, around files: topic pages-meet-news articles, focused on a particular problem or issue, that combine text, photos, video, and links — “sort of a multimedia package,” Silverman says. (Some of the files featured on the site at the moment: a look at energy-efficient street lights, a call for questions and opinions about Toronto’s bike lanes, a report on sharia-compliant financial products.) “We’re calling it a ‘file,'” Silverman told me, “because a story isn’t just a single, static text document anymore. It has to be something that lives.”

That approach — journalism as a process, not a product — is embodied in the site’s core principles, which it laid out to its users in its pre-launch blog:

1. Local first: Readers should determine what “local” means to them. Local could mean a street, a block, a neighbourhood, the whole city, or any combination of these.
2. Always collaborate: The line between journalist and reader should be fluid. Apart from gatekeeping and quality control, we must be responsive to our readers. Our technology choices should be democratic, collaborative and pragmatic.
3. Keep tools handy: Journalists and contributing members should have easy access to a variety of easy-to-use tools with which to report, record and submit ideas.
4. Stay open: The news loop must stay open to new input. Stories evolve forever.
5. Be useful: News-gathering is a public good. We must listen to our community’s needs rather than setting its needs.
6. Curate the conversation: Shift the role of the journalist from fact-gatherer to news producer. We will shape and direct stories in concert with our readers.

None of those concepts are new; what is new is the fact that so many of them — collaboration! curation! community! — are living together, and interacting together, in a single news outlet. Hypotheses, being put to the test. When Dinnick discussed the OpenFile idea with fellow journalists and potential venture funders, he told me, “it was both exciting and humiliating. Because I thought I had something really special, and then they were like, ‘Yeah, duh, that’s what everyone should be doing.’ So we don’t have the answer — but we actually have the opportunity.”

“A really good labor force”

One of the more interesting aspects of the OpenFile infrastructure — one connected to the “directed by its users” mandate — is that the site’s files are community-initiated. “OpenFile was designed to let the public decide what local news stories should be covered,” the site says. “You suggest, we report. You comment, we respond. You create, we publish.” Reporters can pitch ideas, but, in general, they’re brought into the OpenFile process fairly late in the life of a file. And that life cycle, the site makes clear, begins and ends with its community:

1. You come up with a great idea for a local news story.
2. You submit that great idea to OpenFile by opening a file.
3. An OpenFile editor reviews your idea, and either assigns it to a reporter or posts it to the OpenFile site to gauge community response. Members can then add to your idea and help it grow.
4. If the story is deemed a good fit, the OpenFile editor assigns it to an OpenFile reporter.
5. The reporter posts the story and publishes it to the OpenFile site.
6. The published story is viewed by the OpenFile readership community, who can supplement it with additional images, video, comments and more.
7. Local news prospers. Everybody wins. Huzzah!

The reporter assigned to the story becomes “the conductor of the conversation that’s taking place in the file — the people who are already there, who already have a sense of ownership over it,” Silverman says. Reporters are meant to steward and respond to community comments about the file, to add links and context, and generally “to add a layer of reporting to what’s already there.” They’re also meant to produce a story (a short one: 500 words or so) that captures the main points and the significance of the file — like a classic news article, with the wiki-like caveat that the story is meant to grow and evolve as new information becomes available.

And for doing that work, the reporters will be paid. “What we made clear at the beginning,” Dinnick says, “is that there are aggregators, and then there are online properties that create content. And that costs money. You have to pay journalists. No two ways about it.”

Indeed, “what we’ve done, like any good business, is figure out: How can we attract a really good labor force?” Dinnick says. And OpenFile’s solution to that problem is both to serve and make use of a situation that’s as common in Canada as it is in the U.S.: a freelance marketplace made bigger by recent layoffs and buyouts at large newspapers. There are many skilled journalists, in Toronto and elsewhere, looking for work — and OpenFile wants to attract them and then treat them well once they’ve signed on. “We understand the pressures that freelancers are under — and we’re trying to make ourselves very appealing to them, trying to make OpenFile a place they want to contribute to,” Vey says.

One way of doing that, she points out, comes through the instant feedback that the file model provides. Rather than the send-a-pitch-then-wait-and-wait model that characterizes most freelancer-outlet relationships, the OpenFile approach systematizes quick responses to pitches from the site’s editors. And rather than the publish-a-piece-then-wait-and-wait model of payment, “we pay you in forty-eight hours,” Dinnick says.

The openness and collaboration that are editorial principles of OpenFile are also business principles. The outlet doesn’t buy rights to its reporters’ stories; after a piece has been live on OpenFile for twenty-four hours, Dinnick says, “you’re welcome to sell the story anywhere else. In fact, we’d encourage you to go and spin it off into a magazine article, or another online property.”

Yep, you read that right. Linking out is a big concept for OpenFile — not just literally (though there’s definitely that, too: “We’re not trying to keep people on the website,” Vey says; “we want them to go away and come back”), but also rhetorically. The outlet, per its editors and its design, is not interested in owning local news so much as facilitating it — and, to that end, in providing a community not just for Torontonians, but for journalists, as well. For journalists accredited with the site — those with records of journalistic production or degrees from j-schools — OpenFile has a Virtual Newsroom featuring resources and message boards and, soon, analytics (“so you can see what stories are hot and what’s trending right now,” Dinnick says). “In the true sense of being an outfit that supports journalism first,” Dinnick puts it, “we really hope that other journalists will come and just be a member of the virtual newsroom.”

“The right people to do it, and a bit of money”

So where is the outlet getting the money to attract — and pay — its journalists? OpenFile currently operates with venture funding; for the first three years of its existence, Dinnick says, it will look for revenue through ads. “Because all our stories are geotagged, and we’re still focusing on local news, we will be able to deliver the major brands the opportunity to deliver advertising to very local levels,” he notes. And the price is right: While there are “increasingly diminishing returns for a big media buy,” OpenFile can offer advertisers “branding on every single page for a year.” It’s not a hard sell.

“Frankly, our tough time is going to be in year three, when we say, ‘Okay, here are the metrics, and this is what we’d like to charge,'” Dinnick says. “So we realize it’s a long road, and it’s going to be tough. But we have a great CFO who’s got lots of experience, and we have money that we think can last us, and we think we’re building a good brand that will attract the people that can pay off in the end.”

The executive team is planning an expansion of the Toronto-based site to other cities across Canada, with the potential to expand into U.S. cities, as well — creating a kind of digital version of a newspaper chain. One that could leverage the power of the network to engage users and solve problems. “You can be connected with someone else in a similar file in another city and say, ‘Wow, I see the solutions there,'” Dinnick says. “And that’s where we start getting engaged users all connected — and surrounded around the same issue.”

That engagement is part of OpenFile’s broader goal, the one implied in all the other discrete ones it’s outlined today: simply, to be useful. “We want to have a strong utility aspect to the site,” Silverman says — to provide “tools that people can actually use, whether it’s to coalesce around an issue or to report something that’s going on. We really want to try and offer things that will get results for people.” Dinnick echoes that sense of pragmatism. “I didn’t really have a revolutionary idea,” he says of the outlet. “It was just a matter of executing it — just a matter of finding the right people to do it, and a bit of money, and of having the drive and the will. So here we are.”

POSTED     May 11, 2010, 9 a.m.
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