Closed File?

OpenFile Goes On Hiatus Amid Questions

While Canadian “community-powered news” source OpenFile has temporarily closed its doors, it has been criticized for simultaneously shutting off the lights.

No one, including the company’s CEO Wilf Dinnick, has been able to explain exactly what is going on with the journalism startup since its Sept. 28 announcement that it would temporarily be suspending publication for an undetermined period of time in order to undergo changes.

OpenFile, which was operating out of six cities across Canada, has been praised for its journalistic innovation since it launched in May 2010. The website allows for citizens to suggest local story ideas to be followed up by reporters and freelancers. The website earned Dinnick the J-Source Newsperson of the Year Award earlier this year.

Keeping Quiet

The minimal amount of information available pertaining to OpenFile’s hiatus has the journalistic community wondering what is going on.

“There is still a big cone of silence surrounding what is going on at OpenFile. We really don’t have clue what’s happening,” said Justin Ling, freelance journalist and former OpenFile contributor. “We don’t know what the transition is, why it’s happening or whether or not it’s a funding issue—all I’ve heard are rumors and speculation.”

On Oct. 1 an article was published on J-Source further looking into the situation, though details as to the specific nature of the changes remained relatively ambiguous.

Dinnick was cited in the article saying that readers could expect to see an increase in user participation result from changes, as well as updates to the site’s design. He also mentioned that the company was hoping to increase its partnerships with other news organizations. Ling was credited with contributing to the article.

A week later, in a phone interview with The Link, Dinnick said he couldn’t discuss any developments further to those that were mentioned in the J-Source article. In regards to the changes being made, all he could say was, “We have a plan, and things are moving fast.”

The Link contacted several other OpenFile editors and contributors who declined to comment on the both the shutdown and the changes.

Contributor Concerns

“It’s frustrating that we—the contributors and the general public—are kind of kept out of the loop,” said Ling.

“OpenFile is founded on the idea that open media is the future, that everyone can have a stake in our media, and now seemingly when changes are coming and things aren’t going well, they shut the door and say we are going to keep you out until its done.”

Dinnick understands the frustration, but finds himself equally frustrated with being criticized for not providing the public and his staff with more details. He says he is trying to communicate as much as possible. Dinnick also points to the fact that freelancers are not technically his employees, and while they are much appreciated, he isn’t always able to share every single piece of information with them.

“I think I’m being as open as I can,” he said. “[OpenFile] is a private company and I actually am only obligated to communicate with my shareholder.” He added that over the past two weeks he has made an effort to write and call every freelancer employed.

OpenFile has stated that all freelancers will be paid whatever they are owed; however, there might be a delay in payment.

“I understand the frustration, but to take it out on OpenFile or suggest that somehow we are lying or being deceptive, or not telling the truth—that is really insulting to everyone that has worked really hard at OpenFile,” Dinnick said.

Ling understands that financial issues and business need to be dealt with privately, but he still would have liked to play a more active role in the changes.

“It seems to me like it would be a good idea to talk to your journalists about these matters,” he said. “Not that [Dinnick] has to, but this is OpenFile, and it’s really a crowdsourced, open-sourced news model.”

Ling says journalists played a huge part in the construction of OpenFile, and feels they deserved more input.

“We were there were to really build this up and make it what it was, so it’s frustrating now that we’ve got kicked out the door and have no idea what’s going on.”

Dinnick hopes people realize he’s doing all that he can. “If people are frustrated that I haven’t moved fast enough, I really apologize,” he said. “I hope people feel that I’ve taken an idea and I’ve put journalism and journalists first.”

He points to the fact that OpenFile has given journalists many work opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had, offered them access to lawyers, and offered them the rare opportunity to keep the rights to their stories.

What Now?

In addition to fostering concerns about the organization’s transparency, the lack of information about ongoing changes at OpenFile has led to skepticism concerning the company’s stability.

“I think if there was a light at the end of the tunnel, if there was a great new model or if there was something really fantastic at the end of the road, we would have had an idea about it,” said Ling.

But without more information concerning the ongoing changes, it’s difficult to say what the future holds for OpenFile.

Dinnick says it’s important to look at the situation from a business perspective before jumping to any conclusions.

“It usually takes five years for a business to really start to grow and get bigger,” he said. “We are two years old, so people have to be patient with us, and stick with us.”

He explained that both himself and the staff at OpenFile have been flattered by the amount of interest shown in the company, and that they hope it will grow by leveraging the success they’ve had thus far.

“This is our baby that we thought we wouldn’t get financing for and we did, and it’s something we thought we would never get good stories for, and we did,” he said.

Ling says that despite his current frustrations, he would consider writing for OpenFile post-shutdown.

“It’s a great site and the people who worked there were fantastic, the journalists were amazing and the material they were publishing was awesome,” he said. “So I would definitely be willing to put my begrudging away and be open to going back.”

Dinnick can’t say with certainty that things will work out—but he certainly hopes so.

“It’s a bit of a gamble and we are trying to take what we’ve built and try and make it even better—right now the engine is running at 65 to 70 per cent, and we know with some changes we could get it much higher.”

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