New Way of News: OpenFile

OpenFile ( opened its public beta today. It’s attempting to develop a new means for news reporting. I discovered it from a colleague’s Twitter post and was quickly fascinated by the OpenFile model, which I think might have found a sweet way to conjoin citizen media with professional news reporting.

OpenFile set up a system in which individuals in the local area (it currently appears to be just Toronto) pitch topics. Then the OpenFile editors review the pitches and submit strong ones to a public peer review process. The pitches that pass that public peer review (I presume these would be the topics that interest the most people) get assigned to a professional reporter by the OpenFile team. The reporter researches and writes the news story, which eventually gets published on the site. The public then has the opportunity to add to the story with photos, commentary, etc. (they detail the process here). Quite a good way to make use of the professional skills of a journalist while harnessing the best elements of community participation.

I’m going to return to OpenFile in a moment, but first I’d like to point out a few other new news site experiments that I’ve been reading. I’m not suggesting that these are better or worse, but the new ways they explore using the Internet for journalism above and beyond what traditional newspapers have accomplished is significant. I think it will be clear how OpenFile continues to push these new models.

Indymedia is probably one of the older experiments in citizen journalism and has proven itself capable of delivering a lot of new content from around the world. Indymedia has various local “outlets” around the world and allows people to publish news stories from what’s going on in their region. Indymedia managed to develop a network of independent reporting, which is open to anyone. The organization was formed initially for the purpose of protesting WTO talks and to this day has specific topics that it asks for when submitting new stories. Indymedia, thus doesn’t seem to aim to be an all-purpose news organization.

AgoraVox has been growing its citizen media experiment for some time. AgoraVox feels like something between a newspaper and magazine. It publishes in French, English, and Italian. The AgoraVox system relies entirely on its citizen contributors which may or may not be professional journalists (a couple articles I wrote on my blog were published there). By accepting RSS feeds from volunteer authors, it then has its editorial staff review and select, through a layered voting process, the articles it wishes to publish. Eventually writers can join the editorial processes too–building its own community. AgoraVox produces interesting results from around the world with relatively consistent quality (I suspect due to its visible review process). It manages to inform while also providing opinion and public fora to discuss the content. It works very much like OpenFile except that it does not assign reporters to stories, instead it publishes the stories that have already been written by contributors.

The Mark launched fairly recently. It’s slightly different in that its focus is to publish analyses by individuals recruited for the purpose. So The Mark seeks out people that it believes are both credible and linked to Canada, to publish articles, presumably about current issues but not exactly in the form of a breaking news article. To date, The Mark’s process has produced some very insightful pieces.

NewsTilt, another newcomer, gives the impression that it hopes to develop into a large news emporium. It stresses the journalist as a brand. Stressing the journalist’s brand means NewsTilt wants its journalists (and it seems to call for professionals) to report however they think they can best acquire a good audience. The site’s goal is to aggregate a wide variety of content to attract high traffic, which it can monetize in ads, syndication, etc. This is interesting in that the site clearly doesn’t care whether the journalism presents balanced view points (though journalists can do that if that’s their style). I think the assumption is that if it has enough content it will be up to the readers to decide to read the counter-perspectives. NewsTilt also wants its journalists to maintain the articles they write through responding to commentary from readers, similar to OpenFile. Unlike OpenFile, NewsTilt doesn’t appear to rely as heavily on community participation. The community participation appears to be more of a feature augmenting the material than the impetus pushing the reporting. Indeed NewsTilt stresses that it doesn’t assign stories the way traditional companies do, it’s all up to the reporter.

Clearly, people are trying to innovate news reporting and delivery. But two things struck me about OpenFile that help differentiate it from the other citizen news sites. First, OpenFile is wedding the experience, learning, and professional component of traditional journalism with the independence, democracy, and directness new media provides everyone. Second, OpenFile makes its goals of transparency and archival explicit.

To the first point, traditional newspapers should pay attention. Stories continue to circulate about the problems traditional newspapers have had adapting themselves to the digital world, their revenues plummet but they don’t innovate. While some forge ahead, rapidly integrating modern online elements like reader commenting, social media links, searchable archives, etc. I rarely see traditional newspapers innovating in such a way that they really harness the advantages of digital media.

To the second point, I’ve written about the problems with online news stories lacking history. It’s not just that articles sometimes disappear but that the newspapers reporting them forget, years (sometimes months) later about their previous reporting. In the digital medium, we link! Linking is one of the most basic activities, it’s been a huge part of what has defined the Internet. We don’t have to copy much or repeat much or rewrite much because we can link to everything. Every piece of content gets to be part of our digital memory, requiring little more than a link to bring it into the context and relevance of current news stories.

Online news ought to be one of the most link-happy types of content there is. Recording history as it happens is valuable and that value persists when records link to the continuing present recording. This is a major failing in just about all online traditional newspapers today. They lack the history, timelines, and links to prior and perfectly related stories.

I believe, or at least hope based on what I’ve read on OpenFile’s site that it will help resolve this problem. OpenFile seems to want to keep each article alive, allowing it to grow with its community’s interaction and spawn new articles. This ongoing maintenance reminds me of what we see on Wikipedia. Checking on a Wikipedia page, you can always click the discussion or history tab to find out all of the changes to the page and the reasons for those changes. Sometimes those are even more informative than the article itself.

OpenFile has a good idea. I look forward to seeing it grow, and hopefully spread to more cities.

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