OpenFile, a Canadian online-news organization, has modeled its editorial decisions around reader suggestions. The organization covers seven cities, from Halifax on the east coast to Vancouver on the west. After an idea or even simply a question about a community is submitted, OpenFile reviews it, and if it looks promising, they “open a file,” which allows readers to see the suggestion and give feedback, while OpenFile assigns a reporter. The coverage and subsequent community response unfolds on the site for all to see, sometimes resulting in “files” with multiple layers: photo slideshows and video accompanying the text article, and, for some stories, extensive community input in the story’s forum. (Disclosure: CJR contributor Craig Silverman is the editorial director of OpenFile.)
There is, of course, a downside to being this transparent. “We’ve run stories and then seen them on the front page of a newspaper that next day,” says Kathy Vey, editor in chief of OpenFile. But this is to be expected when story scoops are no longer the ultimate goal. OpenFile is not only focused on being the place to go for community news, but also the place to go with story tips and interaction with local residents. “Sure, we had the web exclusive,” says Vey, “but you have to give up on who’s getting it first and ask who’s providing value to the reader. Is that one moment in time when someone has the exclusive important?”
Running an open newsroom also involves inviting readers to become a part of the story process. Not surprisingly, suggestions can come from people’s personal lives. “We sometimes get people with an ax to grind,” says Vey. “But the idea is that anybody can suggest a story, everybody has a viewpoint, and we’re transparent about where these stories come from.”
Submissions that on the surface seem like personal gripes have, at times, revealed underlying tensions within the community. That happened with a story in Toronto, when a neighborhood dispute erupted over a family’s plans to tear down a 100-year-old cottage. A neighbor requested the site be given heritage preservation status in order to stop this family, who had recently purchased the property, from building a large new house, which included a ramp for the mother who was paralyzed from the neck down. A friend of the family suggested the story to OpenFile, and “it really caught fire,” says Vey. “It was just a story about one house on one street, but the city councilor was involved; heritage activists, accessibility advocates, and the architecture community all weighed in.” OpenFile hosted an extensive comment thread, which even gave rise to a hashtag on Twitter—#204Beech, the address of the house. “The story was enormously successful. It was started by a friend of this family, and we were transparent about that,” says Vey.
Some news organizations are pursuing the OpenFile model on a smaller scale. The Guardian is the largest and most established of news organizations to go the transparent-news-list route. The paper’s working story list for each day is made available on Google Docs. As the editors update what they are working on, the list on the site changes with it.
The Guardian also includes Twitter contacts for the reporters who are assigned to the stories. “We thought the most effective way of being open was to give readers a way of directly communicating with reporters,” says Dan Roberts, the paper’s national news editor. He says this is different than just asking the audience for tips, which newsrooms have always done; here, they are making a conscious decision to have this interaction happen on Twitter, rather than providing the reporters’ e-mail addresses for private communication. “We don’t want readers to feel like they are doing our jobs for us, but rather make them part of the conversation and the process,” says Roberts.
If a story they are working on is an exclusive, they keep the phrasing vague. Roberts says the ambiguous wording used for bigger stories is “largely not for secrecy,” but more because once the details of a story are placed on the newslist, “you might as well just write the whole story.”
The trade-off to letting everyone—including their competitors—know what’s coming, says Roberts, is the feedback they receive from readers, allowing the paper’s staff to more easily parse what’s important from the public’s perspective. “The more people are engaged in helping us decide our priorities, the more likely it is our priorities will line up with those of our readers,” says Roberts. “They are helping shape what we do, and not only do the stories get better, it is by definition what people want to read.”