New Guardian open platform journalism site exploits unpaid writers unions claim

Journalism coursesBy Sarah Reid

Journalism unions have spoken out against a new open journalism platform introduced by the Guardian this month, claiming it exploits unpaid writers and deprives professional journalists of work.

“We’ve got no problem with citizen journalism as such, but if they [the Guardian] are commissioning people for stories then they’ll be undercutting paid freelance journalists,” Charlie Harris, President of the Institute of Chartered Journalists told London Journalism Centre. “It’s like using an unpaid intern for months on end; just because there are people willing to be unpaid to get their work published, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

The ‘Guardian Witness’ site sets users ‘assignments’ with a deadline, and invites aspiring journalists to submit their stories, photos and videos for free. The best are then published on the Guardian’s own website.

The National Union of Journalists also has reservations about the scheme.

“If you’re providing core content to a newspaper, the NUJ believes that it should be paid for,” an NUJ spokeswoman told London Journalism Centre. “There are concerns about the nature of this [Guardian Witness]. The Guardian chapel will be discussing these issues in their next meeting and will be raising their concerns with the management.”

Joanna Geary, the Guardian’s social and communities editor, said: “The aim of Guardian Witness is not to get free content, it’s a platform where our journalists and readers can collaborate on stories in a new way – if indeed our readers choose to do so – whether that’s supporting us in reporting stories we already know about, or suggesting topics for our journalists and readers to follow up on.

“In essence, GuardianWitness is not creating new behaviour, it’s simply providing a new route to do it. It puts people with stories they want to tell together with journalists who can verify and provide context, and helps bring new stories to light and make our journalism stronger. Every step of the GuardianWitness process still involves Guardian editorial staff and our readers are not replacing our journalists’ work.

“We are not ‘commissioning’ anyone to submit to GuardianWitness, although – as stated in our published FAQs – very occasionally we might contact someone who has sent a contribution via GuardianWitness and ask them to write us a blogpost or similar. At the point we commission someone, we will discuss payment.”

Guardian News and Media has faced significant financial difficulties recently. Earlier this year, 58 Guardian journalists took voluntary redundancy as GNM management sought to cut 100 editorial jobs in an effort to save £7m annually.