When OpenFile founder and CEO Wilf Dinnick was still working as a foreign correspondent for CNN in the Middle East, he was summoned to the network’s London office where the senior executives showed off iReport, CNN’s citizen journalism project. “They said if the twin towers fell today, people wouldn’t be watching it on CNN, they would go to YouTube,” he recalls. The light bulb went on, and Dinnick says he started to think and talk to other friends and journalists about the power of user-generated content and what Jeff Jarvis calls “networked journalism.” The result of that brainstorm was the creation of OpenFile, which launched last month in Toronto and plans to expand to several other cities over the coming months.
OpenFile is not doing “citizen journalism,” says Dinnick. Instead, it uses trained journalists — many of whom have come from one of the mainstream media outlets in Canada, which have been shedding staff — as the core of its hyper-local news operation. So in Toronto, for example, former newspaper editor Kathy Vey acts as something like a managing editor, dealing with contributors and making sure the stories they’re working on are appropriately handled and reported. The company’s name came from the idea that any user of the site can suggest a story or post a news tip, which then “opens a file” on that topic that both readers and the journalist assigned to the story can contribute to.
The idea, Dinnick says, is to make reporting on local issues — whether it’s an abandoned building that residents feel is an eyesore, or a zoning change for a specific site — an “ongoing, living story” that the community can become a part of, rather than a one-off that a reporter sitting in a newsroom miles away from the community files, then forgets about. Although the journalists working for OpenFile aren’t really bloggers, the startup’s approach seems very blog-like to me, with readers contributing comments and suggestions, even uploading images and videos, which the reporter can then work into the ongoing story about that topic or issue. Being digital allows OpenFile to do something community newspapers used to do, the founder and CEO says, but far more cheaply, and at bigger scale.
When it comes to funding, Dinnick says OpenFile approached a number of the major media entities in Canada, as well as some traditional venture capital sources, and wound up getting a substantial amount of seed funding from a large financial player in Toronto that doesn’t wish to be identified — enough to fund the company’s capital requirements for at least three to four years. OpenFile has also signed up a number of national advertisers for the site and is building a local sales force. It has also been having discussions with some large media companies about partnerships and syndication opportunities.
Dinnick says that since the site opened in beta-mode in May, he and his team have learned that when the community-sourced journalism model works, “it works really well.” The biggest surprise, he says, is “how difficult it has been to get across what we are trying to do. People are used to either a top-down model for journalism or the bottom-up approach that they get with social media like Twitter, and we’re kind of in the middle.” The startup has signed up
250 about 200 reporters who freelance for the site primarily in Toronto, and is considering a freemium model, where membership would give readers access to different features.
A number of startups and digital ventures have been trying to make hyper-local journalism work at some kind of scale in the U.S., including aggregators like Outside.in and Topix. Of course, the 800-pound gorilla is Patch.com, the local journalism venture that AOL was planning to spend upwards of $50 million on this year. OpenFile is similar to Patch in that both it and Patch are looking to cover communities by hiring a journalist who can effectively become an editorial co-ordinator for the local effort by finding freelancers, bloggers, etc. Whether that model can really scale is something both Patch and OpenFile will find out soon enough.
Embedded below is a short video interview I did with Dinnick recently in Toronto:
Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):