How can a lean start-up survive in a busy media market? Kathy Vey, editor of community news site OpenFile, divulges her online recipe for journalistic success, days before she speaks on the topic at Digital Journal’s Future of Media event on April 6.
OpenFile is a collaborative news site, allowing members to suggest stories for trusted reporters to cover. It covers stories the legacy media might not pursue, but where does it fit in a crowded marketplace?
Vey’s venture into online news is a broad step away from her print days. She worked at the Toronto Star as deputy city editor, news editor, assistant national editor, restaurant critic, among many positions. She’s also worked for the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun and wrote for Canadian Gardening magazine.
This Q&A is part of a 5-day series with media leaders who will be speaking at Digital Journal’s Future of Media event which takes place April 6 at the Drake Hotel Underground in Toronto. Check back each day for a Q&A with other media leaders from the BBC, National Post, CTV and GigaOM.
Digital Journal: Journalism via the mainstream media is still very much about one reporter telling a story. How can collaborative journalism change a story and how can media organizations incorporate collaboration into their businesses?
Kathy Vey: We’ve had success appealing directly to readers for story ideas and asking them about angles to pursue after we’ve done the initial reporting.
One example was the 204 Beech file, a story that was initially about a city councillor’s attempt to prevent a Toronto family from tearing down a 100-year-old cottage in order to build a wheelchair-accessible home. It drew an enormous number of comments and evolved into a lively debate about heritage issues, property rights, disability rights, social media campaigning, political meddling — all sorts of interesting angles.
The original file was opened by the homeowner’s business partner, and the people who took part in the ensuing discussion were usually upfront about their stake in the issue. Many chose to use a real name rather than a pseudonym. I had to kill only one abusive comment, which came from a lawyer who lived nearby. I offered him the opportunity to tone down his libellous remarks or to sign his real name to the comment. He declined.
I’d like to see more media outlets address the nasty free-for-all in their comment sections. Moderation is expensive and time-consuming but it’s valuable if you can create a reasonably civil forum that doesn’t make your eyes bleed. There’s no point trying to add something constructive to the conversation if it’s already a shouting match.
I can’t think of any local media outlets that encourage their journalists to respond to commenters — something that we insist on at OpenFile.
Some media organizations are already exploring ways to collaborate. CBC News, for instance, is asking for readers and viewers to weigh in with their federal election questions and they’re also signing up citizen bloggers to contribute to Your Take.
Digital Journal: You’ve worked for big media (Toronto Star), and for independent media/start-up (OpenFile). How have the experiences been different and what does one teach you that the other can’t?
Kathy Vey: I miss the luxury of resources that were available to me at a big, fat corporation — the library staffed with helpful researchers, the online databases, the automated payroll, the dental plan. Your calls typically get returned more quickly, too, when you’re phoning from the Toronto Star rather than from a small operation. I also learned that it’s much easier to be a bad, feared boss than one who’s respected and will be missed when he or she is gone.
I wish I could give my OpenFile editors, who are spread out in seven cities across the country, the experience of the camaraderie that exists in a newsroom, even the newsrooms that have been decimated by downsizing. Mentors seem to be a dying breed, too. We have to find other ways to support one another and strengthen our team, even if it just means having a chat window open in the corner of our computer screens and kibitzing online with our Twitter accounts.
The Toronto Star has an excellent program for summer students and year-long interns that pays them a full salary and provides training and seminars, rather than just dumping them in the biggest newsroom in the country to sink or swim. Competition is fierce, as anyone who has applied will tell you, but it’s a great model to emulate.
At OpenFile, we’ve started a series of what we hope will be monthly webinars that we offer to our editors and freelancers. Our first session was led by Ottawa editor Nick Taylor-Vaisey, who gave an introduction to making interactive maps using Google Fusion Tables.
Digital Journal: The average person at home typically goes out and consumes media via traditional sources or via legacy brands. How can a start-up compete with those habits?
Kathy Vey: Well, I have to disagree with this premise. People are still consuming media produced by legacy brands but they’re increasingly getting it in ways that are anything but traditional. The State of the News Media survey released last month by the Project for Excellence in Journalism had some telling statistics.
In 2010, the percentage of Americans who got most of their news online surpassed the number who got it from newspapers. Most of the newspapers I see people reading on the streetcar are the free commuter tabloids, and I think Sudoku and celebrity photos have more to do with that than the calibre of the news coverage.
We also know that Canadians spend more time online than anyone else, and that people have embraced the idea of having internet access in their pocket or their purse. With a mobile device, you don’t have to wait for the six o’clock newscast to be informed — you can go to the TV stations’ or newspapers’ websites, or to your Twitter feed to catch up with the news whenever you want.
As smartphones become ubiquitous and electronic tablets such as iPads catch on, it makes sense to provide news content in a form that’s convenient for people to consume on the go. That’s a great opportunity for startups.
Digital Journal: Should media organizations take a more collaborative rather than competitive approach with start-ups in the media space? How and why/why not?
Kathy Vey: I’d love to see more collaboration. Our OpenFile Vancouver editor, Karen Pinchin, wrote a blog post last November about “co-opetition,” a word coined by David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee.
She said: “By creating opportunities for excellent journalism within our own organizations, by challenging our colleagues and our competitors to increase the quality, depth and breadth of reporting, and by constantly finding new ways to tell stories and connect with readers, then we’ll be helping the journalism industry citywide…It’s only when we invest in them, throw our weight behind new ones, and create a market where writers, photographers and broadcast freelancers are paid what they’re worth and are comfortable taking risks that we’ll see a real media revolution.”
Also, working with startups enables larger companies to test out new approaches without having to rejig their organization. It’s very tough for big media organizations to innovate and they should approach that challenge by working with smaller organizations that are focused on trying new things. It’s a good match.
Digital Journal: Outside of your own company, what start-ups do you think are making a big difference or impact in the world of media? How so?
Kathy Vey: Many people, including me, had high hopes for TBD.com, a local news project that launched last summer in Washington, D.C. It was an ambitious, expensive undertaking with some great people in charge — Jim Brady and Steve Buttry — and a genuine focus on community engagement, interactivity and mobile news.
But its owner, Allbritton Communications, pulled the plug on the experiment when it was only six months old, gutting the site and laying off most of this amazing team of young digital journalists who had been brought on board. Last I heard, it was going to become a niche arts and entertainment site.
So instead of being a shining example of a great new venture, TBD has become a dire warning about the dangers of getting into bed with the wrong partner.
Digital Journal: What do you think makes a good “digital-first” strategy for a media company, and should modern media businesses approach with a digital-first mindset?
Kathy Vey: Anything but a digital-first strategy right now would be madness. In a recent speech about the future of the newspaper industry, Lord Conrad Black referred to the “terrible albatrosses” of printing presses and delivery infrastructure. Remember, this is coming from a former press baron. There’s enormous value in newspaper brands and integrity, and in the talent of their staff, but trucking tonnes of newsprint around in the wee hours doesn’t make much sense any more.
Here in Canada, the Postmedia Network has been upfront about being digital-first and has gotten off to a good start by appointing an impressive digital advisory board, with people such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Judy Sims, some of the best thinkers and idea-sparkers in the digital journalism industry. I’m keen to see the effect they’ll have.