Posted in Media

Why OpenFile failed

It was early 2010, and the state of journalism was bleak. The effect of the global recession was around its peak, advertising revenue was low and looking like it would never return (it did eventually bounce back a bit). Some fantastic people were out of work (briefly, anyway). Montreal lost two radio stations and at least one online journalism experiment. Jobs were disappearing nationwide.

So media watchers in Canada met with hope and some skepticism a new venture by journalist Wilf Dinnick. He proposed something called “community-powered news”, a structure that would marry the democracy and people-power of crowdsourcing and the reliability of professional journalism. Unlike many startup news websites, it promised to pay freelance journalists competitive rates.

It got a lot of attention, from American media watchers like PBS MediaShift and the Nieman Journalism Lab, as well as Canadian media like the National Post and the Globe and Mail. Earlier this year, its founder was named J-Source’s Newsperson of the Year.

And yet, the skepticism continued. For one thing, there didn’t seem to be an obviously sustainable source of income. And despite all the hoopla, there weren’t many major stories being broken by this project. Occasionally, a quality freelancer would put out something that turned heads, but a lot of the stories seemed to be little different from what you’d find on any other local collaborative blog. It got a reputation as a website that Storified the news rather than reported it. For every interesting story about an important issue, there was lots and lots of curation, re-reporting what had been reported elsewhere.

Not that curation is a bad thing. But we already have a blog that curates local news. And lots of people go straight to newspaper websites for their news, or follow what they see on Twitter or Facebook. While I think curation makes a lot of sense for blogs about specific topics, doing it for generalist local news makes less sense because most local media try to match each other’s big stories anyway.

The system

When it launched, OpenFile promised to change the way people think about how news stories are created. It proposed that its workflow differ from mainstream news organizations in two major ways:

  1. Story ideas would originate from users, not assignment editors. People would be able to add comments while the story was being developed.
  2. Stories would never be “finished” – they would continually evolve, with back-and-forth between the journalist and the public

In hindsight, neither of these ideas worked out very well. The first was based on the idea that there would be a steady supply of new story ideas from readers, stuff that the big mainstream media wasn’t interested in reporting on. OpenFile failed to build enough community engagement that would encourage people to bring their ideas to them. Instead, what few original ideas people would come up with would either be shared on social media, fed to individual journalists or shopped to the largest media outlets.

The second part failed in part because OpenFile employs freelancers, and freelance journalism isn’t really compatible with stories never being done. And in practice OpenFile followed up on stories much in the same way mainstream media does, by writing separate follow-up stories. In other cases they would update the original stories by writing updates on top of them, but those stories always ended up difficult to read because they no longer had a narrative flow.

OpenFile also promised to be more local, right down to the street level. That sounds cool, but there’s a limit to how hyperlocal you can get before you narrow your audience to a handful of people.

Hope

Now, don’t misinterpret me here. I liked OpenFile. They republished a few of my blog posts (and paid a small fee for that privilege, even though I never quite got how that was a good use of money). I even wrote an original story for them last year about a dangerous intersection (a year later, nothing has been done about it). I was encouraged to contribute more, but I didn’t mainly because I had other outlets for professional reporting, in addition to this blog. I wasn’t really sure what kind of stories I could write for them.

Nevertheless, I certainly appreciated how OpenFile paid freelancers properly for their work, and the opportunities they offered to good young journalists.

When I first heard a rumour last week that the whole project would be shutting down soon, I was disappointed but not surprised. Now that they’ve announced a not-shutdown, I’m more confused than anything else, wondering why they need to suspend operations for such a short amount of time, and whether this isn’t just that last gasp of desperate hope that gets shot out before an organization in denial finally bites the dust. I hope not.

But I do think that OpenFile, if it continues, needs to really think about its business model and ask itself what it’s doing. If it’s a user-generated news site, that’s one thing. If it’s a general local news site, that’s another. But it can’t go up against the big guys by trying to do the same thing, and it can’t put all its hopes on the possibility that someone will file a fantastic idea that it can pounce on.

The best way for small media to make a difference is to find a niche and own it. To be the go-to source for … something. OpenFile needs to find something it can be good at, something that other media isn’t doing, and focus on that. Maybe then it can be truly successful. But trying to apply a new model to a generalist news site won’t work if you’re not producing enough generalist news.

Here’s hoping OpenFile can find its purpose before Wilf Dinnick loses any more money on this venture.

And here’s hoping that journalists like Dominique Jarry-Shore and Sarah Leavitt can find other sources of income if they can’t just go back to OpenFile in “a week or two.”

UPDATE (Oct. 1): J-Source has a story about OpenFile, in which Dinnick hints that the new OpenFile would involve increased user participation, but otherwise doesn’t offer much detail about its future.

7 thoughts on “Why OpenFile failed

  1. Etienne

    I just read your undermentioned open file article about Papineau/Crémazie intersection and if that’s any comfort I use it everyday as driver (Crémazie east to Papineau South) and on top of the fact I noticed the hardship faced by pedestrian crossing it I find it particularly challenging for drivers as well since on top of trying not to run over any pedestrian the bypass lane give you about 2 or 3 car length to merge (with 2 lanes of 60ish km/h traffic) or else you end up in the parked cars.

    Anyway Just wanted to join in the cry to somehow change this intersections (better late than never I guess)

    Etienne

    Reply
  2. Tantastic Ted

    Good post. Sad it didn’t work. But yeah, they had no income. Curious to see if they come back out with a slightly modified concept designed to increase revenues – ie: paywall.

    Reply
  3. mike

    Well, the truth is that journalism is less about news and more about manipulation. If you are looking for latest news than internet is the best. if you want commentaries then a newspaper is the place to look for them. I see more and more journalists trying to twist the truth and manipulate the readers.
    In case of freelancers you have no control over their opinions and hard to manipulate.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I see more and more journalists trying to twist the truth and manipulate the readers.

      Are you referring to columnists, of which there are definitely a lot these days, or reporters, who you’re accusing of pushing agendas instead of reporting the news?

      In case of freelancers you have no control over their opinions and hard to manipulate.

      You think freelancers are harder to manipulate than staff journalists? I don’t know about that.

      Reply
  4. Alex H

    Openfile failed for a very simple business reason:

    They didn’t indentify their target market well, they didn’t connect with it, and didn’t follow through in any meaningful way with that group.

    In more technical web terms, they have high enough traffic, but that was combined with a low on site time (2 minutes or so) and an incredibly high bounce rate for this type of site (76%) which suggests that the site was either wasn’t inviting enough to get people to read more pages (they were very low at 1.4 pages per user), or the design wasn’t working with them to retain people on the site.

    It can all come down to the content. If the first page of content someone reads isn’t very interesting, then they are gone. If the first page of content offers links off to the author’s personal blog or site, people could be gone.

    Basically, the stats say it all: People were coming to the site, but they were not staying. That’s a basic business problem.

    Reply
  5. Bill

    I read some really great material in Halifax by Bethany Horne and Neal Ozano to name a couple. They did some outstanding work. Lately the higher rate of curated pieces was a sign of something wrong. Hopefully OF will find a way to reclaim their spot as a relevant and hip news source.

    Reply

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