Meanwhile, another local news startup launched with a lot less fanfare but a no less ambitious plans.
That start up would be OpenFile, a Toronto-based service that’s borrowing innovations from other hyperlocal sites and weaving them together to create an open-source neighborhood news channe.
Journalists can use OpenFile to do the kind of grassroots community reporting commonly found on hyperlocal sites. Like Spot.us, the general public can use OpenFile to suggest stories they’d like reporters to follow up on, a bottom up approach to news that’s getting a lot of buzz. Following yet other online news operations, OpenFile will maintain topic pages, wiki-style entries that serve as backgrounders on specific subjects and act as traffic magnets.
One of OpenFile’s cofounders is Canadian journalist Craig Silverman, managing editor of PBS MediaShift, and author of Regret the Error, a book on newspaper corrections and a blog and Columbia Journalism Review column of the same name.
Silverman, who says he knew he wanted to freelance while he was still in j-school, is committed to using independent writers at OpenFile. He’s equally committed to paying more than the paltry fees content sites offer.
What is OpenFile?
It’s very much about local news. We’re focused on getting neighborhood and street level news. We’ll cover city hall but only if it impacts a specific neighborhood and street. It’s also a collaborative news site. Anybody can go to the site and open a file. It could be they want to know why trees on their street are getting cut down. An editor would review it, determine if it’s a valid story, and if it is, assign a journalist to investigate. The idea is for ideas to come from the community and we’ll act on them. There’s another distinguishing characteristic. As a file goes live and the reporter develops their reporting, they’ll share that on the site. We’re opening up the process. Readers can help build out files by submitting a photo or links to city documents. From there it turns into a topic page about that issue, not just a story.
That sounds like the wiki pages journalists such as Robert Niles have suggested news organizations put on their sites to take advantage of stockpiles of information they have and to keep eyeballs coming to their sites.
The idea of topic pages has been talked about and implemented by media organizations going back a few years. There are products like Daylife you can purchase to create and populate pages based on keywords. That’s a model with almost no human interactive. We’re about creating curated topic pages that are good for traffic and good for giving people an overview. Wiki entries have turned out to be tremendously popular backgrounders that constantly evolve. We expect reporters to interact and take advice from people within the community. They can’t take on a story and not listen to what other people are saying.
Are you working with freelancers?
We’re doing traditional pay for writing with a rate comparable to what newspapers in Canada pay, $200 for 400 or 500 words. On top of that, we’ll pay performance based bonuses like the ones that have become popular at places like Examiner and Gawker. Right now we don’t have a performance metric but we will have a bonus based on page views. If we expect freelance writers to constantly update topic pages, we have to give them an incentive to do that. So we’ll pay for initial reporting but we expect them to stay with it and we have a reward stucture for that. Aside from the pay, if we’re going to cover a large and diverse area like Toronto, there’s no way an online-only property could have a staff of 50. But if you look at the way the workforce is changing and the field is changing, more journalists are out there.
Have you had much success finding people?
We have yet to do an all-hands-on-deck freelance call. Between me and the editor in chief we know a fair amount of writers and are going to people we know. We have one intern in our office who started talking to us on Twitter and asked if there was work. The people who show an interest, who step up and pitch something, that’s who we’re working with. We want to find people who are excited about this. If we need to build a larger pool there are easy ways of doing that. We have a national organization for freelancers in Canada and there’s a popular email list for Toronto writers and editors. There are a lot of places to go.
Since you’re in the hyperlocal news business, what’s your take on Yahoo’s deal for Associated Content?
The first thing I thought was it was defense against AOL’s Patch and Demand Media. For a while there was debate about whether content mills were for real, whether the business model was sustainable. A lot of people in the industry looked at this deal and thought, I guess it is for real. You’ll see Demand, Yahoo and AOL battle it out for that place where content is produced quickly and cheaply to draw in search traffic.
How can a site like Open File compete? Do readers even care about superior content any more?
There is an argument to be made for quality. But just because you have a professional write something doesn’t mean it’ll be better off than a hobbyist writing for Demand or AOL. They have to deliver value in what’s there. When it comes down to neighborhood level news, I don’t see these guys, except for Patch, playing in that area. They’re going after web surfer traffic. But when it comes to bike lanes in a specific city and how they affect streets, I don’t see those sites scaling down to that level. For us, we’re doing is location. We’re geotagging everything on the site. The idea is for a reader to have a customized page based on where they live or work that shows everything going on around them: local news, crime. What you see on Open File today is a beta, and in three or four months the site’s going to change fairly dramatically.
You’re a long-time freelancer. How did you decide to help start a media company?
I’ve always viewed myself as an entrepreneur. I tell people I run a freelance writing business. Writing’s great, that’s the reason I do it, but I’m a businessperson. As a freelancer, you won’t be successful if you can’t get your mind around the fact that you’re running a business. That said, my involvement with OpenFile represents a major shift. I’ve always run my own thing and now I’m on a team running a start up. The plan is for me to transition to be a full-time person, so it represents the end of my freelance adventure. I might have to have a bottle of wine one night and come to terms with that. It’s so much your identity. I chose freelancing, it didn’t choose me. I didn’t suddenly lose a job. Back in journalism school I liked the idea of being a freelancer. The chance to do this start up was the one thing that could have made me want to leave. As of right now, I work part-time for OpenFile, part time for MediaShift and do a bunch of other freelance. Over six or eight months, I’ll start dropping more and more things until I get to the point I’m full time at OpenFile. Or things could go insane at the site and it’ll be four months. But it’s going to happen.
How can other writers make the jump from freelancer to entrepreneur?
If eventually you’ll be in an office, you need to find people you could see yourself working with all the time. You also need to find people who rather than just offering financial backing or branding have a hunger and passion for whatever you’re doing. That’s also what I tell people when they’re considering freelancing. You have to be passionate about it or you won’t be successful. If you’ve been a freelancer and you’re passionate about it, you have to do an internal check to find out if you’re passionate enough about a new project to leave freelancing. For me, this is an ideal scenario. We raised the money roughly around Christmas time, so I knew as of New Year I would be in transition to working there. Right now it’s a period of leaving things off nicely with editors I’ve worked with for a long time. That’s so frightlening as a freelancer because you work so hard to build up relationships and you want there to be those connections because, who knows what could happen.
For me the new job is fun because it’s very much linked to freelancing and that’s why I’m working with them. They realize the importance of freelancers and have tried to make sure there’s someone on staff looking at the contracts we’re creating with them in mind. I helped devise the way we’re paying people. In our contract, we’re not taking all rights in all media. We’re asking for a small window of exclusivity for online and mobile rights. We encourage writers to do what they want to do in print and if they think a story could turn into a feature of a couple thousand words, do it. We hope they’ll come to us first and in some way incubate the idea. We’re trying to be freelance friendly in a world that’s going in the other direction.