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.
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:
- Story ideas would originate from users, not assignment editors. People would be able to add comments while the story was being developed.
- 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.
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.