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leah mclaren

It's a whole new media world out there and Wilf Dinnick is planning to take it over - one local story at a time.

The Toronto-bred newsman, who you might remember from his days on CBC television and later at Global, ABC and CNN, is about to launch a new Toronto-based website that, he says, "inverts the traditional model of reporting" and reinvents journalism as we know it.

Now, I'm not sure whether to react to this news with gratitude or narrow-eyed skepticism, so instead I'll do what any good reporter does: simply try to understand.

Thinking about the future of journalism these days makes my mouth go dry and my left eye twitch - but not Dinnick.

Here's a guy who, as Middle East correspondent for CNN, would find himself on the road for a month at a stretch covering stories in China, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was a stressful job, but did he spend his evenings at the bar swilling scotch like a character out of a Graham Greene novel? Nope.

Instead, the war correspondent and teetotaller holed himself up in his hotel room and tried to think of a way to secure the future of journalism in a digital world, which is a fancy way of saying he was hoping to save his job.

"When I started at ABC, there were 15 people in the bureau and now there are only three and how often do they even get on air?" he said in a phone interview this week.

"I just saw the writing on the wall - they weren't putting the money there. They were putting all the money on the Web."

Dinnick's response to this development - OpenFile, which goes live on Monday - is a news source that lets journalists look to users for story ideas and commentary rather than the other way around. While the typical online news model allows users to simply log on to a given site, check out the stories of the day and perhaps leave a comment, visitors to OpenFile are invited to open a file to "start" a local story of their own.

Other community users can then share and add to the file and, if the site editors decide it's a worthy endeavour, OpenFile will dispatch a real live professional to follow up with a properly researched and reported story. The official report will then be published on the site as a kind of document of record.

Dinnick was so taken with the notion that he decided to get out of traditional journalism altogether. Just over a year ago, he quit his job in TV and moved with his family back to Toronto from Dubai. (His wife, Sonia Verma, now works as a reporter for this paper.)

After doing some research, he sketched out a model that reflected his "ultimate journalistic wish list," which included "total transparency, a story that never dies and crowd sourcing."

In essence, he says, "the idea was to match social media with professional journalism."

With this concept in hand, Dinnick enlisted the help of two other journalists (former Toronto Star editor Kathy Vey and technology and media writer Craig Silverman), hired a chief financial officer and went out hat in hand. After pitching the idea around Bay Street, he received several million dollars of angel investment from an anonymous Canadian corporate backer.

Unafraid to boast, Dinnick describes the site as "one of the biggest media ventures in Canada since the launch of the National Post."

But don't mistake OpenFile for an online newspaper. In fact, the project has more in common with Wikipedia or craigslist than it does with The New York Times.

It is also part of a larger online trend that includes sites like Spot.Us, where users raise money for investigative reports into issues they care about.

Over all, the OpenFile model is more community bulletin board than national broadsheet, which is why it lends itself so well to local stories - and, by extension, targeted niche advertising.

To cite a favourite catchphrase of the current new-media universe, Dinnick's idea depends on the prominence of "user-generated content," but there's a big difference between selling your bike on Craigslist and breaking a serious news story in a balanced, responsible way.

Dinnick insists that his site is not about citizen journalism so much as the marriage of user participation with professional editorial standards. And that, of course, brings us to the nagging question of credibility.

How, for instance, will an operation like OpenFile navigate the torrent of paranoia, misinformation, abuse and blather that often exists online in order to find the real stories? The answer is not entirely clear.

Dinnick says he plans to "set the tone" early by completing user identity checks and blocking racists, sexists and general haters from using the site for good.

But one wonders how, with a total staff of seven, he can possibly tame the beast if it grows exponentially, as he hopes it will. Ultimately, the credibility and viability of a venture like OpenFile will be up to users themselves - and by that I mean the public.

Of course, it's easy to imagine such a site degenerating into a stultifying maze of message boards dominated by local cranks once the floodgates are opened.

At the same time, though, it is undeniably compelling in its optimism. Why not let local people decide what matters most in their communities? Who says only journalists should decide the stories of the day? In essence, Dinnick is suggesting a new kind of social contract between the third and fourth estate, one in which both sides communicate with honesty, integrity and respect.

"Journalists are no longer the voices of God and traditional media are no longer the gatekeepers of news," he says, making my mouth dry and my left eye twitch. But what else is new?