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Summary:

Former CNN foreign correspondent Wilf Dinnick started OpenFile last year because he wanted to reinvent community journalism in digital form. The beta site launched last month in Toronto, with plans to expand to several other cities soon. The site blends traditional journalism and user-generated content.

OpenFile-Dinnick

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:

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  1. Makes me wonder about your openfile project, is it any different from iReport? Someone from public tips you off about a news and your reporters go on to weave a nice little story out of it and post it on your site, nothing new really?

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  2. Good comment. In fact, iReport was my wake up call and helped shape my idea for openfile. Although, I think we added some big things that make us very different. CNN will never be fully committed to citizen engagement. They cannot and should not, as it’s not what they do. We have someone / editors / reporters that answers all of your stories and story ideas. So, we offer so much more than being just a platform or a tipline. Not to mention, we focus on local stories. I respect and like CNN but we really are nothing like ireport. Again, similar but not the same. My suggestion – open a file and see. Wilf, Founding Editor

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    1. Thanks for coming by to comment, Wilf.

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    2. I think I should then eh, when I have something better to share with local crowd by opening up a file.

      Good luck Wilf!

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  3. Good idea. I hope you extend it to supplement the inadequate or blatantly biased information available to voters around election time. This is a serious gap in the US – I’d love to see something that offers facts and a range of opinion while filtering out rabid advocacy, though would be only a seasonal product.

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  4. Can you say more about how you expect to make money on this concept ? And how does it scale ?

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  5. I think it’s a good idea, giving the little guy a chance. Hope it catches on.

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  6. Hi Jwon – yeah, it’s actually not a huge secret. We plan to sell advertising. Very simply, we believe there is a diminishing return in the ‘big media buy’. A company can spend big bucks on a big traditional ad or they can spend a fraction with us and we can target that ad to specific users. SoniaC and Tim, on our site, have been clever in developing great programs for our first sponsors and it should be clear once we start introducing them next month, why we have a good deal for sponsors / partners. Wilf

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  7. [...] día solicitar los servicios de un informador como quien va al dentista? Parece que sí. De hecho en Toronto empieza a ser posible este tipo de periodismo a demanda con Open [...]

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