OpenFile: at the corner of hope and hype

Journalists began talking about a revolution as soon as OpenFile came to town offering a new approach to local coverage. But meeting such towering expectations hasn’t been easy. This week we feature Wendy Gillis’ story about the Toronto-based start-up from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

I pissed off Jay Rosen.
The New York University professor is a celebrity in the online journalism
world—he has over 45,000 followers on Twitter and is renowned for his 2001 book
on public journalism, What Are Journalists For? and I’d been trying to
reach him for months. The guy’s a leading expert on hyperlocal and
collaborative journalism, and I wanted to ask him about OpenFile, a Toronto
based start-up promising exactly that. He finally responded to my interview
request, suggesting a Gmail chat—fitting, I suppose, for an online expert. But
one question turned him against me: “What about the (to use the buzzword)
hyperlocal element? Is that the way online journalism is going? (when this
launched, there was a lot of talk about a ‘news revolution’).”

I asked that because when OpenFile
went live in May, it inspired over-the-top headlines such as the National
’s “Toronto’s Launches, Hopes to Redefine Online Journalism” and The Globe and Mail’s “A Globetrotting Canuck Journo Aims to Revolutionize Online News.” Not surprisingly, the buzz quickly died down,
and as far as I could tell, without much revolution or even redefinition.

An open-source news
website, OpenFile puts citizens on the assignment desk to suggest local
stories, especially about neighbourhood issues, and then hires freelance
journalists to investigate and report. It’s crowd-sourcing meets community
board meets online news. But, frankly, some of the site’s news stories lack
news: the article that detailed the ingredients of gelato, for example, or the
one about how mice migrate indoors when it’s cold, or the revelation that Margaret
Atwood has her own coffee blend. When I mention the site to friends and
colleagues, many still say, “What’s that?”

I figured if anyone could
put the site’s effect on journalism in context, it was Rosen. He replied almost
instantly. “What do you mean when you say talk of a ‘news revolution’? Whose
talk was this?”

My cursor flashed. I told
him about the newspaper headlines, trying to suss out if his terse reply was
just a product of the cyber interview. It wasn’t. “Is that what OpenFile said
it was doing?” Rosen asked.

“No, those were not their
words. I’m just asking if you think there will be more hyperlocal coverage,” I
typed, trying to get back on track.

“I think you should look at
the way you did that little thing with the hype,” he responded. “To me that is
very interesting. Journalists originate overblown claims, then other
journalists come along and ask if the site can live up to those claims.”

Rosen had a point. Perhaps
my question wasn’t fair, especially since the site is still in beta mode. But
as a newbie reporter boarding this supposedly sinking ship, I have a
substantial stake in knowing where my career path leads. Don’t I have the right
to know if journalism is bound to be more collaborative and localized?

Only months in, the site
holds plenty of promise. Its creators actually get that news has fundamentally
changed, and rather than feeling threatened, they welcome the challenge. While
mainstream media pat themselves on the back when they link to a YouTube video, OpenFile
has built its entire system around the idea that people have the tools to
suggest, make and break news. Furthermore, it’s helping to fill the void left
by continuing cuts to local coverage by mainstream outlets. But if
it’s going to survive, it must battle newspaper websites for attention, compete
against blogs and community papers and—oh, yeah—address that whole problem of a
viable online business model. Still, its biggest challenge may be living up to the
hype. As the industry undergoes an identity crisis, sky-high expectations accompany
any idea that might incite a “news revolution.” The problem is, there’s no such

Read the rest.