As traditional news media outlets fret over their business models, there’s no shortage of upstarts hot-housing the future of journalism online. Some, like Toronto’s recently launched OpenFile.ca, are betting on the hyper-local, a revival of the old community newspaper re-engineered for the age of social media.
“From a business perspective, the web is offering new ways to scale down, get smaller, reach niche users for less costs,” OpenFile’s founder Wilf Dinnick tells Monocle. “While there isn’t a dearth of traditional local news, we envision ‘local’ to be way more local than what a city newspaper might – down to a neighbourhood, even a street in a city. Many of the stories we’ll be covering will likely be of no interest to a big city paper.”
What’s more, OpenFile embraces new media maxims of transparency and collaboration, flipping the usual model of news gathering on its head. Here it’s “users”, not journalists, who pitch the stories. A professional journalist is dispatched if the editors decide the pitch merits coverage. Once the report is published, users are encouraged to contribute comments, analysis, images and video, the journalist curating the file as it evolves wiki-like over time.
For Dinnick, going local represents a dramatic career turn. The Toronto native had spent the past decade logging miles as an international correspondent for CBC, ABC and CNN, much of in the Middle East. But the writing was on the wall: as foreign bureaux were downsized around him, money was being ploughed into the web. If Dinnick was going stay in journalism, he thought, he would have to play a part in reinventing it.
After a year of incubation and securing the venture capital it needed, OpenFile is now online in beta format. Dinnick says the seed money should last into year three; by then it will be dependent on advertising revenues. If it flies, Dinnick plans to roll the concept out to other cities in Canada and the US, forging an online chain of community newspapers.
While OpenFile’s model of newsgathering may be novel, its decision to go local, and stake its sustainability on participatory journalism, is not. In March, media giant AOL launched Patch.org, a network of regional news sites devoted to communities in the US now largely under-serviced by print media. The San Francisco-based non-profit news platform Spot.Us, which has pioneered the practice of readers making micro-donations toward stories they’d like to see investigated, recently tweaked its site to allow users to more actively assist journalists in the reporting process.
Few sites go so far as OpenFile, however, in letting users invade the newsroom and shape how stories are reported. But it’s not exactly unbridled citizen journalism either. Dinnick understands the credibility risks of simply crowdsourcing the news — the potential for bias, inaccuracy and abusive language, for example. That’s where the professionals come in. But Dinnick also believes that keeping the story process as transparent as possible will ensure civility and fairness, and ultimately make OpenFile more useful to the community.
So what sorts of headlines have users been generating? “Improving Pedestrian Safety at Busy Intersections”, “Can Toronto Afford an International Art Biennale”, and “Sharia Banking – Is Your Credit Card Halal?” The strongest items have reported on Toronto’s security preparations as host of the upcoming G20 summit from 26 to 27 June. It’s not quite the sort of sharp-edged reporting that will shake up city hall but as media launches go, OpenFile’s was purposefully underwhelming. “Building anything of value takes time,” Dinnick says.
Dinnick thinks in time OpenFile will connect fully with the diverse, engaged constituency he believes is out there. “We agree with some of the leading thinkers in journalism – reporting is not so much a product, as it once was. It used to be The Newspaper. It used to be The Six O’Clock News. Now it’s much more of a service and public good. We want to provide that service for local news.”