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OpenFile offers community news

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Community newsletters are a rather limited source of news, but for many Calgarians, that was once the only place to find information about local affairs. The recent launch of Calgary's OpenFile chapter, a new type of online reporting service, might just change all that.

"OpenFile is an open, collaborative news site," explained Calgary editor Katy Anderson. "The idea is that readers can go to the site and open files about whatever they want to."

The site, which launched Feb. 24, asks locals to submit questions or issues they would like to see researched by reporters. Anderson's job is to assign these stories to freelance journalists and then edit and fact-check all content that goes online.

Mount Royal University journalism program chair and associate professor Terry Field compared the site to The Tyee and Troy Media Corporation, both Canadian online news sites that are funded through donations, grants and corporate sponsorship.

"The idea of having additional sources of information available to a community is generally a good thing because there's a lot going on in a city this size that the more conventional media just can't cover," said Field.

After three weeks, OpenFile Calgary is publishing five to six stories a week and Anderson hopes this number will keep growing.

"You get to decide what the story is as the reader," said Anderson. "No matter how small the story is, you can put the story on the site."

The number doesn't include reporter follow-ups, something unique to OpenFile. Journalists are encouraged to interact with reader comments and update files as stories change.

"As news consumers start using more social media, like Twitter and Facebook, they're used to interacting more with their information and this is a way for them to interact with their news," said Anderson.

While Anderson does edit all follow-up content by reporters, Field questioned the editorial process.

"It's a blanket concern about any news organization that has a thin editorial process in place," he said.

Field pointed to traditional newsrooms which, despite ongoing budget cuts, still employ multiple editors as opposed to one per city.

Anderson said OpenFile Calgary will address the local news "gap that's missing" in other major media outlets.

"As newsroom budgets shrink, I think that local news is something that suffered and papers got filled more with wire news," she said.

OpenFile's start-up funding was donated by a nameless investor and gives the site two to three years to become financially independent -- the company is still in beta and plans to go live with ads soon.

Field said he would like to see the site increase transparency by disclosing investors. He referenced practices at The Tyee, which often relies on corporate donations and investors but divulges this information with relevant stories.

"It would be better if OpenFile made clear who provided their funding," he said.

Freelancers are still pitching the majority of story ideas, but "down the line we're hoping to make it 50/50," said Anderson.

Anderson worked at the Calgary Herald before moving to B.C. to work at the Vancouver Sun. She moved back to Calgary this January.

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