UPDATED: Freelancers write open letter to OpenFile for payment, Dinnick responds

UPDATE: Further down this post, you will read how OpenFile’s CEO Wilf Dinnick says in a note to freelancers that a J-Source article about his organization ceasing operations was “incorrect on many counts.” I asked the writer of this article, Kelly Toughill, Director of the School of Journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax about this. She responded:

Wilf has not asked for a correction or clarification from me or from anyone at J-Source. Nor has Wilf posted any comments on the J-Source site, which he is welcome to do.  Wilf did contact me after the story ran. I offered to clarify anything he felt was misconstrued, but he declined and explicitly stated that he did not want a correction or a follow. Everything in the original story is true to the best of my knowledge; most of it is based on my original interview with Wilf and our email exchanges.

Wilf Dinnick deserves credit for tackling the key problem of our era: the collapse of the business model for public-service journalism. He poured his heart and soul into a bold experiment in a time of excruciating uncertainty. Lessons learned from OpenFile will be at least as important as the viability of the model itself.

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Some of OpenFile‘s former freelancers have written an open letter to Wilf Dinnick, the community news organization’s founder and head.

OpenFile, a network of local news site that wrote stories based on community suggestions, ceased operations in late September.

In a tumblr they plan to update, they wrote openly to Dinnick:

As freelancers who put many hours of work into OpenFile’s growth over the past few years, we were all disappointed to hear in late September that it would cease publishing. Freelance journalism isn’t an easy business, and it became a bit tougher when one of the most encouraging prospects for young journalists shut down.

When the organization closed, many of OpenFile’s freelancers were still waiting to be paid. Some of us had been waiting for months. In late October, several of us emailed company founder Wilf Dinnick, asking when we would be paid. We received no response.

A week later, Dinnick spoke with J-Source. His comments were hardly reassuring. In an email sent to some freelancers on Oct. 2 Dinnick had promised payment soon, at the end of a period of “restructuring.” But he then told J-Source that auditors had physically removed the company’s books and frozen the accounts.

In the interview, Dinnick said that most bills were for only $100 or $200, and only 10 freelancers were owed more than $500.
We wonder why the company would decide to drag freelancers with such small invoices along, for so long, with so little in the way of direction.
Many of the freelancers signing this letter are owed over $1,000. Budgeting without knowing how much money we’ll have in our pockets hasn’t been easy.
Dinnick also implied that paying freelancer within 30 days was somehow a cause of OpenFile’s financial woes. Payment within 30 days was certainly not the norm, and most of us grew accustomed to waiting two or three times that long.
I contacted Dinnick about the open letter,  who called so much of the coverage about OpenFile ‘misleading’, and said he really didn’t need any more confusion.
“I did send this note to freelancers (and have been answering all their notes and questions),” he said. “So many have sent us kind words, I’m sorry for the others who have not felt I have communicated as effectively or solved this sooner.”
His note to freelancers, sent out on Monday after the tumbler was created, follows:
I wanted to update you.First, let me say again how sorry we are that we could not pay you sooner. This is inexcusable and frustrating. I freelanced for years and understand your stress.As I wrote to you in September, we are running late with payments.  As I mentioned in that note, we would have answers / resolution 30-60 days.So as we are approaching the end of November, we should have clarity on timing. At that point, I will be in touch to confirm the exact release date of your money and your personal invoice information to ensure no confusion.To be clear, you will get paid for your work.I also want to let you know that I am not going to be speaking with the media anymore on this issue, only because it has created confusion.The recent J-source piece was incorrect on many counts. Your payment is THE priority for us.However frustrating these last few months have been, I appreciate your continued patience.As you know, you can always reach me at wilf@openfile.ca.I believe I have answered every email that has come to me… and if I have not,  please ping me again.More soon.
Toughill tweeted in response to the Dinnick’s comments posted on this blog Monday, stating that the J-Source article was written with information provided by OpenFile’s CEO Wilf Dinnick. She added that he hasn’t asked for a correction.
[tweet https://twitter.com/ktoughill/status/268151204821991425]
I emailed Justin Giovannetti, one of the undersigned in the tumblr letter, and asked him if he’d be willing to talk further about the open letter. He agreed.  I’ve copied and pasted our Q&A below:
Q. How long had you freelanced for OpenFile? What kind of stories did you write and how much are you owed?
A.  From the start. I was at OpenFile Montreal’s launch party in April 2011 and in November of that year I started as weekend editor. I wrote about two dozen stories and hundreds of blog posts on nearly everything, although civic affairs and later the student strike really dominated my portfolio.
I’m owed about $1,100.
Q:  There are four signatures on this open letter – are you all from Montreal?
A: Yep, we turned into a pretty close community faced with covering the challenging six months Quebec just lived through.
Q:  Why go with an open letter? 
A: We didn’t really want to–the email debate threads were pretty rough. But after we tried the route of private letters and that came up short, we felt like we didn’t really have any other choice. We’d like to get paid, but honest answers might buy Wilf some time. Q:  Have you heard from other OpenFile freelancers waiting for cash since posting this? Or, other freelancers?A: We heard from a few freelancers outside Montreal before the letter was published. But the letter has only been up for a few hours, so I expect more will come forward.
Q:  Have you heard from Dinnick?
A: Not once. I’ve read his quotes in stories and an email or two he sent to all of OpenFile.
Q:  What are you hoping to achieve?
A: We really just want to get paid and Wilf has yet to give us a clear picture of when that’ll be. We’ve all moved on, but the delays and lack of communication have been unfortunate.
Q:  What’s next for the tumblr?
A: A former freelancer in Toronto is putting together a list of what everyone is owed, that could make a great addition. We also invite other freelancers to add a personal story.We were all proud OpenFile reporters for over a year and we were brand ambassadors whenever we went out on assignment. That hasn’t changed. This isn’t a space to bash an organization that helped launch many careers, but we will share concerns.
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6 thoughts on “UPDATED: Freelancers write open letter to OpenFile for payment, Dinnick responds

  1. OpenFile was the kind of experiment that is possible only at a time when the old order is in disarray and the new order has not established itself. I feel for all involved.

    As I read your post, I was struck with how it is itself an example of the shift in the news gathering process. Where is the lead that frames what we should expect? Where is the final paragraph that confirms the slant? Nowhere. Instead, you’ve given us straight ahead reporting of the facts as you gathered them. Almost like a peek into your notebook. Leaving us to make up our own minds about what it all means. I hope this kind of reporting continues to find expression for some time to come.

  2. Thanks for your comment Joe – I wasn’t sure at first you’d see my objectivity as a good thing. I don’t think it’s my role here to state an opinion. (Disclaimer: I championed a pilot project that saw the Citizen and OpenFile working together on some initiatives – including our burger poll.)

    As they say in the movies, ‘just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.’

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