Lima Al-Azzeh

The Future of News is Here: Interview with Karen Pinchin, Editor of Openfile.ca (Vancouver)

In Vancouver Events on November 6, 2010 at 1:18 am

Karen Pinchin, editor Openfile.ca (Vancouver)

You’ve heard it all before: News is dead, the future of print is bleak, the internet killed my newspaper. As esteemed journalists across the country were laid off and publications printed their final inky headlines, one group of forward-thinking journalists decided to revive news in the public interest … online. Meet the newest Phoenix to rise from the ashes: Openfile.ca – a news site where stories “grow” and journalists are paid fairly for investigating and publishing compelling stories born out of the vested interests of local communities. The new world of news is no longer a dictatorship controlled by people who will tell you what they think you need to know. The new world of news is about collaboration.

I sat down with the editor of Vancouver’s Openfile, talented journalist Karen Pinchin, to find out more about the site, her views on journalism today, and the future of news reporting.

I,Vancouverite: Are you a native Vancouverite?

Karen Pinchin: For all intents and purposes I might as well be, I really love it here. I was actually born west of Toronto, I’ve been in Vancouver for about three years now.

I,V: Did you always aspire to a career in Journalism?

Well, both my parents are scientists, my dad has a PhD in physics and my mom has a Masters in chemistry so when I said I wanted to be a writer they were completely horrified. I think journalism ended up being a compromise at first, a way of ensuring I didn’t end up living on the street holding up a very meaningful sign.

It is a good career, though, and I was lucky enough to get into Carleton University. I spent 4 years in Ottowa, and did a lot of living in cities that made me realize I never, ever wanted to live there, which is why, again for all intents and purposes, I might as well be from here.

I,V: So what is Openfile.ca?

Openfile launched about six months ago, it was the brain child of a guy named Wilf Dinnick who spent a lot of his career travelling to all sorts of countries on behalf of all kinds of news organizations covering coups and all sorts of incredibly hard news and I guess as the “internet” began to rise he started coming up with this model that married the “bottom-up” potential of the internet as a way of gathering stories. At the same time, the model is fair to freelancers and still maintains a commitment to the highest quality work.

When he stared thinking about this type of reporting, he knew there was a model in there somewhere, but he needed to put together a team of people who could finalize the concept – so he hired one of the best digital minds in the whole country Craig Silverman. [Silverman’s] been thinking about how journalism has been changing for a long time and as soon as I found out he was involved I knew they were probably on the cusp of something very wonderful.

I,V:  That’s awesome

Yeah, except for my mom, I’m still trying to help her to figure out what I do.

I,V: Did your interest in online journalistic efforts start with Openfile or were you interested before this venture?

I went to journalism school as the net started becoming the dominant force in news, I was subscribed to the Huffington Post before the Huffington Post existed as it is now, I signed up for email updates in the early days when I was a student – that allowed me to get an idea of how it went for being a tiny specialty news organization to being this huge thing, everyone was so excited/terrified.

My education was more traditionally inclined: you have this model where there’s a bottleneck of ideas that only so many journalists have access to. The exciting thing about the internet is that it opens it up so more people can delve in and find stories. That being said, you also start experiencing more problems like quality control and you have to find a way to reassure your readers that you’re objective and that the reporting is balanced.

I was birthed into a media industry that was, well, terrifying! Everyone was talking about how the sky was falling, newspapers were dying, but I think a lot of the layoffs and deaths of newspapers were always going to be a painful transition, it was just a matter of what was going to rise up from the ashes. You can see some news organizations coming around to the idea now though, like with the Globe and Mail’s latest redesign.

I,V: How did you end up becoming a part of the Openfile team?

This is a funny story actually. In terms of my recent experience I was at The Canadian Press, where I met my current partner, and prior to that I had just spent 4 months working for Newsweek International in New York studying international affairs. I moved to Vancouver thinking it would open itself up to me but the job market was sparse, to say the least. I eventually got a job editing online for Maclean’s and it was while I was working there and living in Vancouver that I came across all these awesome stories that weren’t being told because you don’t have the same concentration of media in this city as there is in Toronto. So, after spending about a year and a half at Maclean’s I thought I’d put my money where my mouth was and started freelancing. As the Olympics came to town I was hired by Vanoc to write 150 features on as many Cultural Olympiad events as I could. We put together a body of work that I am super proud of, and the experience really allowed me to get to know the city, what’s a better time to have a love affair with Vancouver if not during the Olympics?

It was a lot of work, tons of 16 hour days, so when it was over, my partner and I decided to go travel around Europe for four months. We started a website (he’s a graphic designer) called “Wanderlost” – a friend of ours did the illustrations (Amanda McCuaig). When we got back to Canada, we were driving back across the country with the dog in the back (my partner’s from New Brunswick and my family is in Toronto) and I saw an email from a freelance list serve that I’m on and it was from Craig Silverman asking freelancers if anyone would be interested in this website. I clicked on it, saw the model, and I was totally smitten.

From all that I had seen in traditional media and in online journalism, and harbouring all these beliefs about what journalism is supposed to be and what it’s supposed to do, this was the closest thing to a working business model espousing these ideals that I have ever seen, and so focussed in the public interest! It wasn’t the same old professor telling you the industry is dying – this was a talented group of people who decided to just make a new model and fill holes with solutions and do news, no matter what. Amazing.

I sent Craig an email, not knowing anything about the expansion out of Toronto, and I said “I want to help you save the news industry and I think what you’re doing is worthwhile and if you need help, please let me know”. Turns out, they were expanding to Vancouver, so the story comes full circle. I applied and had the skill set they were looking for, thankfully. I’m really, really excited about it.

I,V: Can you explain how it all works?

Anyone can pitch a story, that’s the biggest difference between our model and traditional news. People go online and sign up for a username. The only information we really need is their postal code or even the first three digits of it, and that helps us figure out where in the city they are (where the stories are coming from). All stories, or pitches rather, get vetted by an editor first to ensure they’re legitimate.

So let’s say one person is seeing something happening  at Burrard and West Fourth and puts in a pitch, we can see if anybody else in the city is experiencing the same problem or is facing this similar situation in their neighbourhood and we start drawing links and identifying trends across the city. It’s almost like we’re crowdsourcing news.

When a story either reaches a certain capacity in terms of the interest in the subject (if people are uploading corresponding pictures and commenting on the pitch) then it’s a clear sign that the story is worth reporting on. This is what’s meant by a “growing” file – someone starts it, or “opens” it and then it “grows” with additional contributions from locals. In which case, we then assign the story to a professional writer who goes out and investigates further.

We pay $200 per published article. Eventually we’re hoping to use PayPal to speed up the payment process. The cool thing about the model, though, is that reporters are rewarded when there is continued interest in their piece, if there’s a spike in traffic, writers get an extra $50 for an extra 5000 pageviews.

After a short exclusivity period (2 days) the freelancer is free to re-purpose the story to sell to another outlet or use in a book or PhD. They own all the copyright, which is very rare. Many companies expect that they will own all your words until the end of time essentially. So if someone has a specific area of interest, it doesn’t make sense to take away a writer’s rights to that content.

What I love, as an editor, is that this process sort of eliminates my having to be the type of editor who chases people around to follow up on stories. My job is to call to offer help or check in, to send emails, and to remember that the whole point of my job is to be there as a constant source of support for a writer and curate what’s on the site. I’m there to make sure their facts are right, their names are correctly spelled, and to absolutely be their evangelist and their last line of defense to protect them from libel or getting in trouble.

I,V: Are you personally doing anything to get people interested in Openfile?

What I’m doing now, which is exciting, is I’m meeting freelancers and photographers and people involved in local media and finding out what their area of interest is and finding out what they like talking about so that when a story emerges I can assign it, it’s sort of the revival of beat reporting where people are allowed to have a speciality and we don’t just abuse a general assignment reporter which can be the case with a lot of newspapers. Don’t get me wrong, general reporting can be fun but it can be hard on the soul.

I,V: How do you go out and meet freelancers?

There are a lot of competent creative people in this city, it’s not too difficult to find them. When I was making my case for an early Vancouver launch, it’s something I believed in wholeheartedly. People live here because they love it here, people live here because they’re interesting, interested people. Because we have a model that does pay fairly and does encourage community involvement, I think people here love community and being mutually supportive and are looking for an outlet to fulfill that and this is why it’s perfect. It’s about meeting people (writers) in town and asking them who they know in this city who really dig the idea of helping to revive journalism in the public interest.

I,V: How does one go about becoming a reporter for Openfile? What kind of background or credentials do they have?

First you have to sign up on the website. We’re generally looking for people who are interested in something and are willing to participate on the site. You don’t have to have been published in the New Yorker to be published with us. I really enjoy the teaching aspect of being an editor so I welcome the opportunity to help writers craft tighter leads or write better sentences.

As it stands, right now the model is attracting people who are actively seeking solutions to industry problems and are trying to make a difference – it’s about people who share the same values. One thing I remember in particular after meeting the creators of Openfile was that on the business cards there was a quote that said “all news starts with local news”, which meant a lot to me as someone who started her illustrious journalism career at the Etobicoke Guardian writing about Santa delivering toys on a firetruck. I love the idea that media allows every little story to be told – there’s no reason why we can’t find local stories that are applicable to the broader media and the broader world. I love how you find one story and see how it affects many more people, it’s a series of beautiful vignettes.

I have to mention also, a really great tool that reporters may be happy to see: you don’t have to write over the story to update it or insert a “***this story has been updated” note at the top of an article. Openfile has a software that allows the original story to remain intact and allows a a reporter to update subsequently (still for pay). That way all relevant content exists on a single page without compromising the integrity of the original.

I,V: Aside from obvious technical differences, what (in your opinion) is a fundamental difference between the “old” model and this new online model?

I think that either way part of the romance of journalism for me is … well, let me go back a second here … I had an amazing professor at Carleton and when I was losing hope about the whole point of journalism, he gave me the world’s best pep talk – he had these amazing ideas about what journalism was supposed to accomplish in terms of helping people, supporting people, and how ideally journalism should support a democratic society and I think a lot of what is happening in media right now can sometimes make us question whether or not those ideals are still possible. I know a lot of reporters who – it’s like an occupational hazard – are getting really jaded, but I think Openfile has inspired other writers in this city who also believe that “this is how I always thought this should be!”

Part of our mandate is being super collaborative and transparent. If you go to the website you’ll notice that even in our “About Openfile” we’ve made an effort to write in plain language, to stay away from jargon, which can be really alienating. We recognize that  if we want people from across communities of all income backgrounds and all ethnicity to participate then we can’t be throwing around words that they aren’t familiar with.

Also, one of our primary goals is to get community groups involved – they’re super plugged into what’s happening in their neighbourhoods and have a lot of story ideas. Traditionally people sending press releases to newspapers about local happenings were sort of mocked but, for example, the West End Residential Organization probably has a good idea of what’s going on in the West End and we value their perspective. It’s about expanding our knowledge base and being open to more sources and not just limiting their stories to angry, anonymous letters to the editor.

I have my eyes and ears peeled for constructive criticism. Everyone who has been hired at Openfile believes in constructive criticism. A lot of news organizations move too slowly and staidly – at this point we’re agile, we can make changes and alter, we’re more accommodating. It’s a whole other news mindset – it’s about being open to being better.

I,V: Do you think there’s a lot of censorship in media today, or at least a very active control over the type of content that is published?

I think the bottom line can be a very scary line to try to stay above these days. I’ve never experienced censorship myself, I’ve reported on some touchy stories and never been censored, but I can see a sense of passive censorship, because the fear of the bottom line does exist and with all these “newspapers are dead” business, it’s quite a palpable fear. Even just that a newspaper or magazine is thinner now, it’s the stories that don’t make it into the paper. Maybe that isn’t technically censorship, but it is unfortunate. For every story that gets written and isn’t run – where do those stories go? With us, the story will grow and live on the Internet, whether it’s assigned or reported on right away – the conversation and contributions live and people can follow that.

I,V: What are some goals or dreams you have for Openfile?

I have the biggest intellectual crush  on ProPublica and I only hope Openfile can meet, or let’s face it, exceed what they have accomplished. I look forward to and hope that one day Openfile might have the capacity to do really big investigative journalism – I know there’s a willingness to do this kind of reporting at Openfile. It’s the idea that we can really make an impact as to what news gets covered in Vancouver, to make it healthier for other media organizations to start doing this as well and to inspire writers who have given up hope, it’s given me hope back.

At the media launch* we’ll reveal some interesting stories that are already in the works and by mid-November we’ll have a block of stories as an example, to show people what we’re looking for. The Vancouver Openfile doesn’t launch until late November, but our landing page will be available starting this Monday (November 8). I have one very excellent freelancer working on a very, very interesting story that I don’t think many other outlets would be brave enough to run … but you’ll see that later! We want to be seen as a destination where people can carve really great stories and we want to eventually be of the calibre where people want to come here to Openfile first to tell their stories.

Karen Pinchin is a reporter, editor, food lover and world traveller. Her reporting portfolio (impressively) cites the following publications to her credit: Maclean’s, Newsweek International, The Globe and Mail, the CBC, The Georgia Straight and The Canadian Press.

* Fresh Media will be hosting Openfile’s Launch Party tonight at the W2 Storyeum Salon (151 West Cordova) starting at 5pm. The event also serves as the official after party for Media Democracy Day and will host speakers (such as CBC Radio 3’s Steve Pratt discussing his own experiences creating an innovative platform for music in Canada), live music, food and more. Tickets are still available for the event!

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