Window to an alternate reality

In this incredible video Openfile founder Wilf Dinnick discusses how his website can beat newspapers at their own game, months after the site had already shut down.

Throughout the video, Dinnick drops nuggets of wisdom such as “Journalists do not work for pay, they work for passion” which is a thing people say when they’re trying not to pay journalists much.

But what’s utterly bizarre is that throughout the video, which it seems was filmed in late January, Dinnick never once lets on that Openfile had shut down four months earlier and still owes freelancers thousands of dollars. It feels like the interview was recorded in another world where the sky is orange and Openfile is thriving, and then it somehow made its way into our reality.

The interviewer, Randall Craig, apparently didn’t do the in-depth research of checking to see whether his guest’s website was still operational and keeps making cringe-inducing statements like “five years down the road, Openfile hopefully won’t be a closed file.”

Asked about it on Twitter, Craig said on February 24: “We conducted the interview last month. Sadly, we weren’t aware of the Sept date. Openfile had such promise – very unfortunate.”

Openfile sparked an interesting debate in it’s two-and-a-half year life. Many of us said the business model would never work, while just one year ago J-Source named Dinnick their Canadian newsperson of the year. In the months since Openfile was supposedly put on pause, Dinnick has continued to insist the site would return in a different form.

On January 10 Dinnick tweeted that paying off the freelancer debts was “all being wrapped up now,” though he’s been making similar promises for months. As recently as February 20 Dinnick claimed Openfile would not be gone for good and was just “down for a bit and was planned.”

I’m skeptical Dinnick will get Openfile off the ground again, but if he does it will bare no resemblance to its former self. Openfile was conceived as a “ground up” news site where readers pitch the stories they want to read. For reasons I’m not going to get into here, I think that’s a terrible model. But from what I’ve pieced together from Dinnick’s statements over the months, his new vision for Openfile seems to be as a cheap provider of custom content for other media companies.

Custom content is the industry buzzterm for content that isn’t quite advertorial but also not quite straight news. Here’s how it would work: Let’s say Postmedia goes to a bunch of real estate companies and says they’ve got this big insert coming out on buying a new home that you’ll want to advertise in. So the companies pony up the cash and the paper then goes to Openfile to write the stories around the ads. Rather than straight ad copy (“Why Greg Smith is the best Realtor!”) that no one wants to read, the stories are more like “5 things to look out for when buying your first condo.”

Of course companies have already been doing this for years (the condo example is actually the first and last custom content story I had to write years ago for a former employer) but as circulations decline they’re leaning more heavily on custom content now. The Toronto Star recently threw a lot of resources into a new in-house custom content division. From what I can tell, Openfile’s pitch is that it can create this content cheaper than the big companies because it doesn’t pay vacation, pensions, etc.

It’s a far cry from the lofty ideals of the original Openfile. The real shame here is that a lot of enthusiastic and talented people bought into the idea of Openfile and ended up getting screwed. I wonder what must be going through their heads as they watch Dinnick being interviewed as a visionary businessman.

UPDATE: The Grid staff writer David Topping, the same guy who compiled the list of Openfile’s freelance debts, says the producer of the Dinnick interview confirmed to him it was recorded on January 21, 2013.

UPDATE #2: Craig tells Halifax-based Frank Magazine his interview with Dinnick was a “massive fail.” He also tells Frank “we got snookered” before adding that there was no way he could have known about Openfile’s situation since Dinnick didn’t volunteer the info so “not snookered exactly.” If nothing else, this ordeal has perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with the ‘talking with great minds’ industry that has sprung up to capitalize on the popularity of TED talks.

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2 thoughts on “Window to an alternate reality

  1. There is an opportunity to make money doing what you love doing in collaboration with people that compliment your skills. It needs the right substrate. That includes technology but also some appreciation of why our species came out on top when “Confronting the Tiger” and appreciating some tax benefits of being a small business inter billing with other small business, your collaborators.

  2. I contributed to their Hamilton site for a few months in 2011 until it was shut down in November. I remember thinking it odd that although it was an online news organization they paid us by cheques sent through the mail.

    I also briefly considered trying to do some stuff with their Toronto site (I’m in Milton). I’m glad I didn’t.

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