When everyone with a smartphone can be a journalist . . .

B eing a young journalist, you’re not often surrounded by much optimism about the industry you so desperately want to be successful in. So when at a conference this January, I was surprised to hear one speaker, OpenFile founding editor Wilf Dinnick, profess that the future of journalism was indeed very bright to a room of wide-eyed student journalists, most of whom have been told time and time again the perils of following their dream.

“The simple fact is, [ . . . ] if you just talk to people, they love reading the news. They want to be informed about their communities,” said Dinnick in an interview with the Manitoban.

OpenFile is a collaborative local news website that allows readers to suggest and keep track of stories affecting the communities they live in, and also post photos and video directly to the site. Dinnick helped found the site after he felt that there was not enough innovation in the traditional media companies he was working for.

“I worked at CNN and a bunch of other places, and even the bosses above me saw some really obvious things happening, simple things like everyone going on the Internet, and not a lot of innovation trying to capture that,” said Dinnick.
The partners of OpenFile felt more could be done to make local news accessible online, since the Internet has allowed those in the media to connect with each other much easier and “to deliver the services of journalism in a much more effective way,” Dinnick explained.

“For us, we don’t need to buy a printing press, we don’t have delivery trucks, we don’t have to have a huge staff; we can focus just on the journalism and put at least 90 per cent of our resources into the actual journalism,” he said.
“I’m not saying that the printed format doesn’t have value; [ . . . ] what I’m saying is that we had an opportunity to do something a bit different, and it [ . . . ] adds kind of a new voice to the media landscape because of this sort of disruptive innovation — that the Internet makes it cheaper and easier to be a publisher.”

With OpenFile working on a collaborative format, readers can help contribute to the news they’re reading, a path Dinnick sees many publications moving towards in the future.

“If everyone’s got a cellphone, if everyone’s got a smartphone, and everyone’s connected online, why would they not help gather the news? Why would they not help suggest where a story is or add to a story? We think that makes a lot of sense,” said Dinnick.

“If there’s a story out there, you can’t rely on the newsroom at the Calgary Herald or the Toronto Star [ . . . ] to know what’s going on in every corner of the city. This way, we can actually do that. We can actually get people to suggest stories and say ‘Hey listen, this is happening on my street.’”

When wading through suggestions, editors at OpenFile look for stories that wouldn’t necessarily get taken on by mainstream media outlets.

“We’ll jump on a story that the television stations or newspapers wouldn’t cover because maybe it’s too local for them; we’ll jump on that, or a story that’s maybe just a question or it’s just an idea,” said Dinnick.

“[ . . . ] If a story has probably already been covered and the journalists working at OpenFile can’t add much to it, we’ll be totally honest. We’ll just say [ . . . ] ‘This has been reported in four or five papers. I’m not sure what else we can add to it, but please send it around to people you know and if things change maybe we’ll jump on it.’”

OpenFile now has offices in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa and the Waterloo region, and is soon launching in Montreal. Winnipeg may also see OpenFile come to town in the near future as well.

Dinnick stressed that OpenFile is not aiming to compete with local media outlets when it launches in a new city.

“Before we launch in a city, we make sure to just shoot a note to editors at some of the other sites and say ‘Listen, we don’t think we’re competing, because some of those very local news stories don’t get reported, [ . . . ] and if you see a story that we’ve suggested and you want to go do it, be our guest,’” said Dinnick.

“We think as journalists that that’s a great thing, to be a conversation starter. I think in Winnipeg that could really be the case. There are probably a lot of stories that probably aren’t reported in the Free Press that we could help start.”