I pissed off Jay Rosen. The New York University professor is a celebrity in the online journalism world—he has over45,000 followers on Twitter and is renowned for his 2001 book on public journalism, What Are Journalists For? and I’d been trying to reach him for months. The guy’s a leading expert on hyperlocal and collaborative journalism, and I wanted to ask him about OpenFile, a Toronto based start-up promising exactly that. He finally responded to my interview request, suggesting a Gmail chat—fitting, I suppose, for an online expert. But one question turned him against me: “What about the (to use the buzzword) hyperlocal element? Is that the way online journalism is going? (when this launched, there was a lot of talk about a ‘news revolution’).”

I asked that because when OpenFile went live in May, it inspired over-the-top headlines such as the National Post’s“Toronto’s OpenFile.ca Launches, Hopes to Redefine Online Journalism” and The Globe and Mail’s “A Globetrotting Canuck Journo Aims to Revolutionize Online News.”Not surprisingly, the buzz quickly died down, and as far as I could tell, without much revolution or even redefinition.

An open-source news website, OpenFile puts citizens on the assignment desk to suggest local stories, especially about neighbourhood issues, and then hires freelance journalists to investigate and report. It’s crowd-sourcing meets community board meets online news. But, frankly, some of the site’s news stories lack news: the article that detailed the ingredients of gelato, for example, or the one about how mice migrate indoors when it’s cold, or the revelation that Margaret Atwood has her own coffee blend. When I mention the site to friends and colleagues, many still say, “What’s that?”

I figured if anyone could put the site’s effect on journalism in context, it was Rosen. He replied almost instantly. “What do you mean when you say talk of a ‘news revolution’? Whose talk was this?”

My cursor flashed. I told him about the newspaper headlines, trying to suss out if his terse reply was just a product of the cyber interview. It wasn’t. “Is that what OpenFile said it was doing?” Rosen asked.

“No, those were not their words. I’m just asking if you think there will be more hyperlocal coverage,” I typed, trying to get back on track.

“I think you should look at the way you did that little thing with the hype,” he responded. “To me that is very interesting. Journalists originate overblown claims, then other journalists come along and ask if the site can live up to those claims.”

Rosen had a point. Perhaps my question wasn’t fair, especially since the site is still in beta mode. But as a newbie reporter boarding this supposedly sinking ship, I have a substantial stake in knowing where my career path leads. Don’t I have the right to know if journalism is bound to be more collaborative and localized?

Only months in, the site holds plenty of promise. Its creators actually get that news has fundamentally changed, and rather than feeling threatened, they welcome the challenge. While mainstream media pat themselves on the back when they link to a YouTube video, OpenFile has built its entire system around the idea that people have the tools to suggest, make and break news. Furthermore, it’s helping to fill the void left by continuing cuts to local coverage by mainstream outlets. But if it’s going to survive, it must battle newspaper websites for attention, compete against blogs and community papers and—oh, yeah—address that whole problem of a viable online business model. Still, its biggest challenge may be living up to the hype. As the industry undergoes an identity crisis, sky-high expectations accompany any idea that might incite a “news revolution.” The problem is, there’s no such thing.

 

The empty white walls of a west Toronto office are a tame backdrop for Wilf Dinnick. The 40-year-old broadcast journalist once reported from the cityscapes of Abu Dhabi, an earthquake-ravaged county in China and a Manhattan forever altered by 9/11. After years working in Canadian television, the Toronto native became ABC’s Middle East correspondent, then an international correspondent for CNN, where he reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. For nearly a decade, his office was all over the world.

On this May morning, though, OpenFile’s CEO is happy to be back working in his hometown. He looks sharp in a crisp pink-collared shirt, frequently tousling his silver-streaked hair. It’s hard to tell he’s at the end of an exhausting first week—one several years in the making. The site’s origins are humble: casual dinnertime discussions with his wife, Globe journalist Sonia Verma, about launching a local news site led to advice seeking calls to fellow journalists and talks with venture capitalists. Dinnick set off to find funding when the couple came back to Toronto, and six months later he struck online gold: over a million dollars from an anonymous investor (believed to be financial holdings company Fairfax, though Dinnick will not confirm this), enough to keep the site afloat for about three years and fund expansion to other cities.

Shortly after 10 a.m., editor-in-chief Kathy Vey—one of just a handful of employees—strolls in wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors. She begins sifting through new pitches and reads one aloud. “‘Is there a Thai community in Toronto, and if so, what do they think about the political unrest in their home country?’” she says. “Well, that’s an excellent question.” Readers submit story ideas by opening a file (hence the site’s overly clinical name). Any member—registering takes little more than a name and an e-mail address—can open a file or add to another.

Dinnick shies away from defining OpenFile as hyperlocal since it reports on city-wide topics, such as Toronto’s bicycle rental program, transit issues and, especially, the Toronto’s municipal election (he even hired former Star and Globe reporter Jane Armstrong specifically for campaign coverage). But many stories concern the corner grocery store, the local daycare or how a municipal issue affects one community. All are geo-tagged so readers can plug in a postal code and get news tailored to their neighbourhood. According to Robert Washburn, professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, such online tools, combined with the dramatically lower cost of web publishing, have prompted a move away from the globalization trend of the ’80s and ’90s and toward communities.

Vey gets several story suggestions a day, either from readers or journalists. If she accepts an idea, she posts it on the site for readers to comment on or to add photos, web links or video. She puts up at least one new article each weekday, more during special events such as the election. Decades of experience at newspapers have moulded her basic news judgement. “Is this something that no one else is doing? What can we bring to it that’s fresh? Often, that’s the citizen’s perspective.”

Social media have turned the news from a lecture to a conversation. And tired of the top-down approach of editors deciding what’s news, Dinnick wants readers to be in on the digital story meeting. “The gatekeepers of information are not the few big newspapers and media companies anymore,” he says. “It’s everyone.”

But it’s far from everyone journalism. The site has recruited several dozen freelancers to verify and investigate readers’ ideas (or pitch their own). OpenFile pays $200 per story, asking reporters to keep articles under 700 words and encouraging devices such as bullet points. “Instead of struggling over a wonderfully crafted piece,” Dinnick tells writers, “use the time to dig or find an angle no one else might have on the story.” The site’s creed says a story is never finished, so freelancers update files with new information or multimedia, respond to comments, and keep track of feedback on Twitter and Facebook. Bethany Horne posted additional information, whether it was a new interview, a comment or photo, to every story she wrote last summer. Although it was a new way of reporting for her, she says, “The story is going to evolve, so get it out quickly and then keep working on it.”

Among the biggest supporters of OpenFile’s “pro-am” approach is Kevin Newman, former Global Nationalanchor and OpenFile board member. “The thing I like most,” he says, “is that there are still professional journalists and their ethics pursuing stories that are dug up by everyday people.” But not everyone thinks the concept of collaborative local news is original. Citizens have always called in tips to hotlines—and they are often duds. Sure enough, OpenFile’s “growing files” include less-than-noteworthy ideas such as food banks requiring more diapers (which is more public service announcement than journalism). But members have suggested plenty of creative and relevant ideas, including “When Will Car Sharing Reach the ’Burbs” and“The Butts Don’t Stop Here,” about fines for cigarette litter. Dinnick believes people are passionate about where they live and work, so they have a good understanding of the stories that need to be told—something most newsrooms haven’t fully figured out.

Sometimes citizens are helpful simply by being in the right place at the right time. People snap photos and shoot videos of riots, fires and sleeping public employees for mainstream media outlets. But Dinnick thinks such initiatives just placate the readers, and only exist because news organizations have been forced to compete. CNN.com has a user-generated site called iReport, but he thinks his former employers “hate it.” He argues that if the Twin Towers fell today, people would go to YouTube. “What does that say? The most trusted source of news is worried about YouTube? The writing’s on the wall there.”

Meanwhile, BlogTOTorontoist and similar sites have solicited content from readers since they launched. “One of our big generators of stories is readers who have their eyes on the street for us,” says Torontoisteditor David Topping. Same goes for BlogTO publisher Tim Shore. “You can try to do it all yourself,” he says, “but you’ll never be as successful as if you tap into the readership that you serve.” While he welcomes new local sites, he doesn’t understand all the hype over OpenFile. “I wish them the best of success, we’ll all be better off. But I don’t view it as original. It’s been a bit of buzz.”

 

Just three weeks after Dinnick launched the site, an emotional battle between disability rights advocates and heritage property conservationists erupted over 204 Beech Avenue, a home in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. It was a textbook hyperlocal story, and OpenFile jumped on it early and stayed with it.

In late May, user “jonlax” opened a file that simply said, “Councillor Sandra Bussin wants to stop a family from building an accessible home,” and linked to a Post story. The owners of a century-old house were planning to raze it to build a wheelchair-accessible one. An outraged neighbor contacted the city councillor, who then attempted to designate the home a heritage property.

Freelance writer Josh O’Kane interviewed the owners and wrote “204 Beech: A House or a Home?” The first of many readers to comment was the president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, who explained the heritage review process. Vey piped up a few times to clarify points or provide links to further reading, including a letter from Bussin about the pending heritage designation.

Four days later, O’Kane posted an update that included an interview with Bussin and an audio slideshow created by Vey. As readers continued to weigh in, the dialogue contained little partisan politics or name-calling—odd for anyone used to the scum on mainstream media comments—though Vey did have to respond to one antagonistic post by saying, “I’m disturbed by your mention of ‘wishing cancer on their opponents’ in your most recent comment. No such sentiment has been expressed in this forum.” For O’Kane, the reader feedback became an integral part of the reporting process: “The story developed and it became a living document simply because people were able to contribute and point out questions that hadn’t been asked—questions that weren’t necessarily based on the angle that I took for the story in the first place.” He updated the story after an intense community meeting a week later, then a final time late in June, when the owner received a demolition permit.

With its multimedia gallery, numerous updates and over 100 reader comments, OpenFile’s journalism was the strongest coverage, ultimately showing the site’s potential to excel at local, collaborative reporting. The Globepublished just one story about the family and its plans a few weeks before the dispute broke out; the Postfollowed up with a single story after its initial article; and the Toronto Sun ran a column about the community meeting, mentioning the 204 Beech dispute only at the end. The Star published two news articles and a feature, but its site allowed comments on only one story and offered no videos or audio. Online, the Torontoistoffered a short blurb in a daily roundup, linking to OpenFile’s coverage; BlogTO also linked to the OpenFilestory, then ran a short post in late June, after the owners won the battle.

For Dinnick, 204 Beech showed how a hyperlocal story can be universal: “A narrative about somebody with a problem on one street is going to speak to somebody three blocks away, six blocks away, in another city, in another country.” But mainstream outlets often don’t have the resources to provide coverage by the block, especially when local news tends to take the brunt of budget cuts—Citytv’s decision to cut its local 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts outside Toronto is just the latest example. On top of that, larger corporations are buying up community newspapers and merging them. Sun Media, for example, recently purchased two community dailies and one weekly in Northumberland County, Ontario, and combined them into one regional publication called Northumberland Today. So while people are eager to know about where they live, work and raise their families, they can’t always get that information.

American sites such as Spot.Us and EveryBlock.com launched in response to this need, offering variations on hyperlocal reporting and financing. As its name suggests, EveryBlock.com carries news by the block with geo-tagged stories—and was successful enough that MSNBC bought it—while Spot.Us features “community-funded reporting,” producing both neighbourhood and municipal stories financed by donation. Patch.com specializes in local news in communities and cities with populations between 15,000 and 100,000, while Washington, D.C.’s TBD.com, a website and online TV station, features a combination of local news and community collaboration.

In Canada, hyperlocal journalism began with blogs and expanded to news sites. Two journalists living in Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario, for example, launched countylive.ca this spring, offering news the area’s approximately 25,000 residents aren’t getting elsewhere. And when Brandon, Manitoba’s CTV station closed in October 2009, Glenn Tinley set up itvBrandon.com, an online TV station. He’s since opened three stations in Saskatchewan, with two more launching in northern Manitoba this spring. “People want to know what’s going on in their community,” he says. “Sure, we want to know what’s going on with the oil spill or Haiti, but those don’t have a direct impact on a person in Humboldt.”

 

Before any police cars blazed in Toronto’s streets, Bethany Horne caught wind of a big G20 summit story. Ontario’s provincial cabinet had quietly passed a temporary regulation that seemed to grant police the power to search and arrest people within five metres of the security fence (in truth, it was only valid inside the fence). The law, in effect from June 21 to 28, didn’t become public knowledge until June 24, after police used it to arrest a curious passerby. Horne jumped on the story and posted it that night on OpenFile. The story was in newspapers the next day.

But in a June 30 article, the Star took credit for breaking the story. Upset and looking to set the record straight, Horne complained on Twitter. “I have a beef with you @Star_G8G20 You claim in the Star today that *you* broke a story on Fri., which *I* broke on Thurs.,” she wrote, linking to her original story. Whether she meant to or not, Horne’s beef raised a tough question: Does a story break if only a few people read it?

Even when it got the big story, OpenFile’s work went underappreciated. And that won’t be the last time as long as it operates in a media saturated city with four major newspapers, a number of local TV stations, and various blogs and community papers. But Dinnick admits OpenFile can’t compete—and it isn’t trying to. He says Toronto is a real neighbourhood city, but community newspapers are “flyers,” blogs don’t run enough news and the papers aren’t built to provide hyperlocal coverage. “They don’t do what we do,” he insists. “We can scale really small. We hope that someone will call us and say a tree has fallen in their yard and the city hasn’t come to do it in three days. That’s a story for us.”

Whatever else their merits, news sites have a hard time making money,but many hyperlocal start-ups are aiming to take advantage of their small,distinct readership. Dinnick hopes local grocery stores and day cares will recognize the concentrated audience and buy ads. “We’re trying to do a different kind of advertising, so we’ve said for a small fraction, join us,”he says. He also believes companies will begin to realize that journalism is a public service, one they’ll help fund, so he plans to bring in wha the calls the “PBS model”—as in, “This story has been generously brought to you by….”

 

Rosen and I keep chatting despite our rough start, though not before he rails on me for calling hyperlocal a buzzword (“I think the view of it as all hype or a buzzword is a product of journalists who simply don’t want to take the time to understand it”). At the time, he had recently returned from co-hosting Block by Block, a conference in Chicago for local online  news sites, including OpenFile, and learned a lot. “Many of the founders of these sites are struggling. The work is hard; they have passion but also a lot of problems,” he says. That’s quite evident in a recent survey of small-scale news start-ups funded by the Knight Foundation,an American digital and community journalism non-profit organization. Before he became CBC ombudsman, Kirk LaPointe concluded on his media blog, themediamanager.com, that the survey’s summary“isn’t terribly pretty: The business model depends on grants, the most sustainable models are extensions of someone’s personal commitment,and training the public to be citizen contributors is a high-churn, low return concept.”

Despite the uncertainty, Dinnick has hired editors for the Ottawa and Vancouver affiliates—both launched in November—and is looking to expand into other cities. The site was a finalist in the best news coverage and best article categories at the 2010 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Most importantly, people are reading and participating. Although they had only a few hundred members at the end of the first week, that number tripled by the fifth month. Even if OpenFile survives, though, itwon’t herald a news revolution. The site isn’tthe solution, because there won’t be just one fix to the industry’s woes. “We don’t have the answer for a new model of journalism,“ says Dinnick. “But we’ve been given the opportunity to help figure it out.”

Which brings me back to Rosen. Before we signed off our Gmail chat, he made one last point. “All talk about hyperlocal as “the future” comes from people who don’t know much about it or how hard it is. ‘Can hyperlocal live up to the hype?’ is really itself hype. I wish you would consider this.”

I guess that goes for everyone else, too.