The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, wants to bring them into the professional fold, at least tentatively. And the Australian Press Council, which regulates press standards, says one of the most critical issues facing the media is defining who, exactly, is a journalist in the digital age.
The union has approached 20 websites it believes have shown signs they are interested in ethics, accuracy and paying contributors once they earn enough to do so. It says that so far, 12 have signed up to the union’s “Charter of Excellence and Ethics”, to be launched mid-year.
It commits publishers to abide by the union’s code of ethics to be “fair, transparent and honest to our audience” and ensure commercial considerations “do not undermine our accuracy, fairness or honesty”.
It also holds them to “treating our employees and contributors fairly and in accordance with the relevant awards and agreements’’. In return, the sites can brand themselves as upholding ethical standards and have access to training through the Walkley Foundation.
The Alliance’s campaigner on the future of journalism, Marcus Strom, said that “we are not out to stop those innovative websites”. “We want to support them so they can live up to their own aims and expectations, which is to pay everyone a reasonable amount. . . [A]s start-ups, it’s quite a difficult thing to achieve.”
The Alliance is not entirely unselfish in its motive – it sees small online publishing as a big part of the future and it wants to maintain, and grow, its membership.
Those signing up include Wendy Harmer’s women’s site, The Hoopla . “Someone said recently it’s the Wild West out there and I guess you can think of the Alliance and the Walkley Foundation as the Sheriff,” Ms Harmer said. Reader trust was vital and the site paid contributors as a matter of principle, although not as much as she would like. “I’m not getting paid, the contributors are going to get the first whack. That’s just the way I want it to be.”
Also planning to sign up is Jane Gilmore’s politics and culture site, The King’s Tribune, the Overland literary journal, The Peach, which is aimed at young women, and this website, The Citizen. The Alliance is being selective — it has not approached publishers of sites such as Mamamia because publisher Mia Freedman has said it does not pay contributors, a sensitive issue as the number of freelance journalists grow.
Others, such as Crikey’s editor Jason Whittaker, said: “I don’t think the charter is really for us an organised newsroom”. Crikey was already subject to Press Council standards and abided by a code of conduct.
The union initiative is a small sign of big shifts in media. Many independent websites are now established, but are battling to break even financially, even while audiences for some are growing. It also reflects a sometimes heated debate between established media organisations and newer websites, which criticise the mainstream, but are not subject to professional standards.
Whether or not those working on independent sites are even “journalists” – or want to be journalists — is a grey area, but one that will need to be dealt with, according to the chair of the Press Council, Professor Julian Disney.
Mr Disney told a Centre for Advancing Journalism forum this month that the key to improving media diversity in Australia was online sites, which had yet to reach a broad audience. They needed to be encouraged, but at the same time it was critical to work out, even in a rudimentary way, who could call themselves journalists. Without that, the privileges journalists now enjoyed – such as shield laws to protect their sources in court – would be eroded.
“Why should there be a shield law for everyone? Why should any person be able to write something and not disclose the alleged source? Similarly, for closed courts. If we want judges to be willing to allow journalists to stay in closed courts when everyone else is thrown out, we’ve got to have some definition, even a rudimentary reason, to believe that these people have some training in and commitment to standards. The media really needs to get real about this.”
What the MEAA charter says
The online, multimedia and small publishing sector is the growth area for the media industry. The future of journalism relies on its success.
By developing a community of publishers committed to excellence and ethics we can help ensure that this sector not only survives but thrives as a space for quality, independent journalism and publishing.
As publishers, we will work with the Walkley Foundation and the Media Alliance to achieve these objectives.
- We are committed to achieving excellence in journalism by respecting the truth and the public’s right to know as set out in the Media Alliance Code of Ethics.
- We conduct our business in a manner that is fair, transparent and honest to our audience.
- By working with the Walkley Foundation we will strive to provide our staff with best-practice, industry-relevant training.
- Our publications are independent. Our commercial considerations do not undermine our accuracy, fairness or honesty.
- We are committed to be employers of choice in our sector by treating our employees and contributors fairly and in accordance with the relevant awards and agreements.
- We support a free, diverse and creative publishing sector that attracts the best practitioners with regard for the highest standards.
- We will work together to lobby government and the broader industry for policy that promotes investment and innovation in the online, multimedia and small publishing sector.
Gay Alcorn is a contributing editor for The Age, where she writes a fortnightly column, and a freelance journalist. Twitter: @gay_alcorn.