It’s Tuesday morning. OpenFile.ca has been live for just a few hours, and their Liberty Village headquarters reeks of coffee sweats and anticipation. Several days’ worth of takeout beverage cups are strewn over desktops and walls are storyboarded in Post-It memos. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable sound of keyboard clacking—lots of it.
Just over a year ago, Wilf Dinnick was a Middle East correspondent for CNN with a novel—and, perhaps to some, borderline insane—idea: to leave his fast-paced television gig abroad and establish an open source, collaborative news site in his hometown of Toronto. Within a few months, the project had secured three years worth of funding from an anonymous venture capitalist and cobbled together a small but impressively credentialed group of programmers and journalists to make it happen. Among the ranks of OpenFile’s illustrious team are former Toronto Star editor Kathy Vey, now OpenFile’s editor-in-chief, and media journalist Craig Silverman, who is serving as the site’s digital journalism director.
According to Dinnick, what separates OpenFile from traditional news sources is the aim to pare city reporting down to its neighbourhood roots. “We’re doing local news issues, right down to your street,” he explains. “The internet provides us with that opportunity.”
This brings up the question: how do the folks behind OpenFile view other local news sites, and their site’s role among them? Says Silverman, “There are a lot of these outlets in Toronto, whether it be Torontoist or BlogTO or other people, that are out there trying to get people’s attention. There’s that general kind of competition, that people know that they have a lot of options, and we hope they see us as one of them. But,” he adds, “we also know that what we’re offering is something unique.”
Sonia Chai, OpenFile’s chief operating officer, design & interaction director, relishes in explaining how the site’s beta platform will allow for a more in-depth approach to issue coverage. “The construct is that a user will have identified a particular issue that’s important to them and they’ll come [onto the site] and open a file.” From there, the user can send in an idea “pitch” in the form of a picture, video, or text, which will then be reviewed by Vey and put onto the site to garner feedback. If an idea yields enough traction, a reporter will be assigned to investigate.
“The files don’t ever go away, so a variety of things could happen,” says Chai. “One file that’s open in one community actually can then spawn other ones, and then that [can lead to] a more citywide issue which can, editorially, be covered on that level. [The site] is focusing on a very micro level at first, so we really want to get that part of its functionality working, and then we’ll work on building the highway between different communities that are sharing common issues.”
Now, two days into the site’s existence, it’s clear that OpenFile is set up to integrate the transparency models necessary for legitimizing new media outputs with a traditional journalism backbone. While a rotating scroll of “new pitches” is neatly visible from all navigation points on the site, an issue isn’t given a proper entry until a reporter has been dispatched to cover it, at which point the file is classified as either “reported” or “under investigation.” In other words, this isn’t citizen journalism: it’s citizen suggestions, moderated and refined, then left to the professionals to handle.
At this early stage, it’s difficult to predict whether OpenFile will be a real game-changer in Toronto’s news media environment. What the team views as their distinguishing edge—an open source, ground-up approach to local coverage—isn’t actually much different from the model currently in place at sites like BlogTO and here at Torontoist, where much of what gets covered is also prompted by openly acknowledged reader tips. What might really set OpenFile apart from others, realistically, is the sheer people power behind the operation and the resources at their disposal to pay journalists market rates for quality work.
Time will tell whether OpenFile will dramatically shape the face of the news media industry, but Dinnick is already thinking big. “We have people across the country who would like to do this in their city, and we’re prepared to do that.”
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.