OpenFile CEO Wilf Dinnick working at the start-up's office in Toronto. (Stock photo by Belinda Alzner)
With one year left in his three years of initial start-up funds, OpenFile’s founder has announced that he’s temporarily suspending publication in order to make changes to the online news start-up, leaving many with questions about what’s happening. While this ‘pause’ surprised readers and the Canadian journalism industry, regular contributors saw signs weeks ago that changes were coming.
Wilf Dinnick, CEO of the innovative start-up that won the J-Source Canadian Newsperson of the Year Award just nine months ago, said he had “no idea” how long the hiatus would last. He’s been thinking about making changes “for some time,” he said.
While Dinnick said he couldn't answer questions about job losses or sections being cut during the transition, he said the organization has grown and shrunk repeatedly since launching over two years ago. “And we're shrinking it right now, really small, while we try to figure this out,” he said.
There are currently six city editions for OpenFile: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. Each city has two people working full-time on contract – a city editor and a news curator. The organization also has two reporters on contract in Saira Peesker and Jane Armstrong who focus on suggested stories with a national focus, as well as an unspecified number of freelancers who work in the individual city editions.
Doing more of what works
Dinnick said that an increase in user participation would be the biggest change to expect from OpenFile coming out of the transition. “You'll see a lot more points of entry to participate,” he said. “There's one or two ways to participate on OpenFile on that model, and we want to make sure we (substantially increase that).” He said the company wants to grow on what it has done really well — namely user-engagement — and that Chief Experience Officer Sonia Chai and Chief Technology Officer Tim Robinson have proposed some designs for the website that will allow for that.
The model that OpenFile operates under, works, said Dinnick. They've had and continue to have revenue, he said while citing positive user engagement statistics for 2012. “Our (financial) model is not based on advertising and CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) and it never has been,” he said. “We get paid to create content for our partners, and that's how we've been making money and doing engagement platforms.”
Dinnick said he’d like to see more partnerships with other news organizations, though. Examples of past partnerships include one with Postmedia during last year's federal election, where canada.com put a link on its homepage to direct readers to OpenFile, where they could suggest ideas for election coverage stories. OpenFile partnered with Huffington Post Canada in 2011 as well, in their #BeerEh collaboration. OpenFile told the hyperlocal stories about beer and its prices in each of its cities while Huffington Post took a broader, national approach. And for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking in April 2012, OpenFile Halifax partnered with Global News to tell the stories of those who had ties to the ship.
Dinnick maintains the reason he's suspending publication is because “we have to make that shift to where we want to have more participation with the public. And a slow transition probably isn't the smartest way to do it.”
Editors and contributors affected
The hiatus and forthcoming changes may be a surprise to readers and others in the industry, but Dinnick says they had discussed this with the editors – and at times the curators – beginning in the spring and throughout the summer, with greater frequency in September. “As a private company we did not think we owed anyone outside the contributors, like the editors and curators, explanations until we made decisions,” Dinnick said in an email to J-Source Monday morning.
Hints that changes were coming appeared as early as late August for other contributors. Justin Giovannetti, one of two weekend curators for OpenFile Montreal, says he was told that the weekend curators were being let go due to insufficient traffic. "The weekend hits weren't what they were looking for,” said Giovannetti.
The weekend curators had already been laid off for the summer and just as they were about to return to work, they were let go altogether, Giovannetti said. The money saved from cutting the weekend shift, he said he was told, would go to paying more freelancers.
The email notification was sent by OpenFile editor-in-chief John Ferri, said Giovannetti. He said he has “no ill feelings” towards OpenFile.*
Sources confirmed to J-Source that OpenFile Montreal curator Sarah Leavitt and OpenFile Montreal editor Dominique Jarry-Shore had been informed they would no longer be working with or contributing to OpenFile while on hiatus.*
OpenFile Halifax editor Neal Ozano had been working without a contract since the end of August and confirmed that he had been informed of the hiatus two weeks ago, though said he is optimistic about OpenFile's future.**
Ottawa city editor Nick Taylor-Vaisey will leave the organization for a spot on Parliament Hill with Maclean’s, the magazine announced Monday.
In a phone interview with J-Source, Dinnick highlighted Ozano and Jarry-Shore's work. “But don't forget, as great as our team is, everyone's a contractor and that was always the agreement.” He praised the work of OpenFile contractors and freelancers, and predicted that they would get hired away by other news organizations.
“One risk is some of the great talent who have been working as contractors with us will get snapped up because they're just so good,” he said. “As much as I don't like that, that's part of the game I guess.”
OpenFile Toronto editor Chantal Braganza said the transition period is the same for all city sections. “We're taking a break from publishing until the final details of what the next stage for OpenFile's going to be are hammered out,” she said. “So it's the same for everybody.” Since publishing was Braganza's day-to-day function, she said she is not doing anything for OpenFile during the pause, but is looking forward to the next phase.
The online business model
Dinnick said he has not run out of money, and he’s working on a new business deal “We're always looking at new ways and new partners to grow,” he said. “A small start-up, a CEO's job is always to be thinking six months ahead.”
When announcing him as the winner of the J-Source Newsperson of the Year Award in January, judges had praised Dinnick and OpenFile for its “innovative approaches to engaging citizens with local, public-service journalism in an independent environment.”
Ryerson University journalism professor Gavin Adamson said he thinks OpenFile's model is “brilliant”. Adamson specializes in digital and online journalism, and has experience writing about venture capitals.
“It's what journalism is about now. It's about reacting to your community, reacting to what your readers, your audience is interested in,” Adamson said. “I think OpenFile, no matter where it ends up going, has had an impact on other newsrooms.”
“The business side of any venture, whether it's journalism or not, you're going to try to run your business very lean,” he continued. Everyone at OpenFile was on a contract, not full-time permanent positions, and Adamson says that was done deliberately to allow a CEO to make quick changes without being tied down financially.
Speculating on the situation in the scope of a venture capital business, he said the investor(s) is “going to want to come in and will have his or her own ideas about how the company has to be structured financially.”
Dinnick described how he felt about the changes by comparing running a start-up business to his time reporting from war zones. He previously worked as a reporter, covering stories in Iraq and Afghanistan for BBC and CNN.
“I find it much scarier because every day there's a new challenge and a new obstacle. And the highs are amazing and the lows are tough. But am I excited? I'm very excited, but it's also scary,” he said of the current transition. “You've got to try things to fail and sometimes you can really fail. So yeah we're taking a big risk. But I wouldn't say this risk is any bigger than any of the other risks we've taken.”
Former OpenFile Montreal freelancer Justin Ling contributed to this report. Also with files from Belinda Alzner.
* CORRECTION: A previous version of this article conflated the idea that eliminating the weekend editors was a precursor to shutting down OpenFile Montreal. This is not the case, and we regret the error. Further in the story we had noted that sources said Jarry-Shore and Leavitt's contracts had been ended. We have clarified that paragraph as well.
** CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article was unclear about Ozano's position. We have since clarified this statement.