In a rare act of freelancer solidarity, six writers for OpenFile Montreal signed their names to a public letter, calling on the start-up to pay them. As Rhiannon Russell finds, that hasn’t happened yet, but for now they’re happy with regular updates from OpenFile CEO Wilf Dinnick.
OpenFile’s model was always conducive to freelancers. The online start-up that operated out of six Canadian cities at the time of its shutdown in September relied on freelance writers and, unlike so many other digital outlets, paid well.
Recent events, though, have cast a cloud over this. Last week, four OpenFile Montreal freelancers wrote an open letter, expressing disappointment that they had not yet been fully paid for their work. (Two names have since been added to it.)
“Once we’re all square, we would be glad to go back to work and get OpenFile on its feet again. For now, we need to get paid,” they wrote.
But after being contacted directly by OpenFile’s CEO Wilf Dinnick, they are willing to wait for the money, provided that communication continues. Signatory Justin Ling says they are “definitely satisfied for the time being.”
Dinnick reached out to the freelancers after they posted the letter to apologize for the wait, and to give tentative details on when they can expect payment. They updated their Tumblr last Wednesday to say:
“Dinnick himself is a respected member of the journalism community, and this letter was not intended to damage his reputation or credibility. Instead, we had hoped to reopen lines of communication after we felt they had been shut. Dinnick could not give us an exact date to expect payment, but for now his assurances that we will know by the end of the month are enough for us.”
Ling, who is owed more than $1,000, would not discuss specifically what Dinnick told him about OpenFile’s restructuring.
Dinnick declined an interview, but wrote in an email: “For those who are overdue with payment, it is currently being processed, and we want to stress again that everyone will be compensated for their work. I have communicated this to those contributors.”
(To read his comments in full, see the bottom of this story.)
“We came to an agreement on it that Wilf would try to give us an update every week or two, even to just say, ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen,’ but just to keep in touch and make sure we have an open channel,” Ling says. “I think the problems we had were more superficial and communicative, rather than with OpenFile itself.”
He says he has no hard feelings. If OpenFile is reincarnated with a similar model, he’d be happy to work for the site again.
“It was a fantastic medium because it was freelance-only, so you’re not competing against staff journalists, you don’t have to worry about someone stealing your pitch, you don’t have to always stress about some of the business-end of journalism,” says Ling.
David Topping, who used to work as OpenFile Toronto’s editor, agrees.
“From the beginning, [treating freelancers well] was clearly something that they prized,” he says. “That’s what makes what’s happening now so unfortunate – the apparent contrast between those original days or relatively recent days to what’s going on now. I say apparent because, obviously circumstances have changed now, but certainly while I was there that was something that was obviously very important to them - I think probably still is important to them, which again is why what’s happening now is such a surprise.”
Topping, now a staff writer at The Grid in Toronto, is tallying how much money is owed. After reading the Nov. 7 story Kelly Toughill wrote for J-Source, he put a public call out to any OpenFile contractors – staff or freelance – waiting on payments.
“As someone who’s freelanced a bit myself and worked with plenty of freelancers for a long time … I know that freelancers are in a somewhat vulnerable position that they may not necessarily want to say, ‘Hey,’ put it out in the open, ‘I’m out this much by this company,’” Topping says. He’s not owed any money.
He doesn’t want to reveal specific numbers yet, but says the outstanding amount he’s aware of thus far is in the thousands. He plans to give the company the benefit of the doubt and sit on the information he’s collected for a few weeks, only revealing it if OpenFile needs more pressure. His understanding is that Dinnick hopes to give freelancers solid dates to expect payment by December.
“At this point, it feels like, there’s already this open letter, let’s maybe wait and see,” Topping says.
After the very public posting of letter, it seems those in the know are now keeping quite mum.
“The only thing I really care about is that those freelancers who are supposed to get paid get paid,” Topping says. “This is not like a blackmail situation. I’m fond of OpenFile … and I still think the idea behind the thing is a good idea and I think that it could absolutely adapt or come back stronger.”
This power the OpenFile freelancers have exerted in this case is indicative of the social media age we live and work in.
Topping says it’s “kind of great” that freelance writers today perhaps feel less vulnerable, and are more willing to hold companies they work for to account.
In this case, “[The letter] gets sent around and shared, and that creates additional pressure on the company to pay and pay promptly.”
Wilf Dinnick declined an interview for this story, but said in an email:
“We thank all those who have written and called, asking about our relaunch.
We want to ensure we stick to our own timelines, to pause and make sure everything is in order. As we communicated to our partners and many of the freelancers, we are taking stock of everything we learned so that we can improve. For those who are overdue with payment, it is currently being processed, and we want to stress again that everyone will be compensated for their work. I have communicated this to those contributors.
We continue to be surprised and flattered by the amount of attention OpenFile has received.”
Last week, in an email sent to freelancers after the letter was posted, Dinnick said that Toughill’s J-Source article was incorrect on many counts. It’s not clear how so. Toughill responded to the Ottawa Citizen’s Melanie Coulson, who posted the comments on her blog:
“Wilf has not asked for a correction or clarification from me or from anyone at J-Source. Nor has Wilf posted any comments on the J-Source site, which he is welcome to do. Wilf did contact me after the story ran. I offered to clarify anything he felt was misconstrued, but he declined and explicitly stated that he did not want a correction or a follow. Everything in the original story is true to the best of my knowledge; most of it is based on my original interview with Wilf and our email exchanges.
Wilf Dinnick deserves credit for tackling the key problem of our era: the collapse of the business model for public-service journalism. He poured his heart and soul into a bold experiment in a time of excruciating uncertainty. Lessons learned from OpenFile will be at least as important as the viability of the model itself.”