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Dec 14, 2009

Saving Croakey: an announcement

As regular readers of Crikey and the

As regular readers of Crikey and the Content Makers blog may know, Crikey stopped funding the Crikey Health and Medical Panel (CHAMP) and Croakey at the end of October.

From Crikey’s perspective, the company was cutting back, and judged the health beat was not core business (despite my repeated contention that it should be, if health is understood not simply as a lifestyle issue but as a critical political, social and economic issue).

But they didn’t get rid of us so easily! Instead, the hunt began for alternative ways of funding the project.

Today I am pleased to announce that a consortium of organisations, which see value in having a forum for public health debate and discussion, are pitching in to keep CHAMP and Croakey alive, for at least another year.

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), VicHealth, the Epidemiology Unit of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, the Brain and Mind Research Institute, and the Australian Health Promotion Association have each committed $2,000 to the project. (A sixth funder is still being sought – so please let us know if you or yours would like to contribute to the Croakey Consortium).

(Update: since this blog was first published, the UNSW Research Centre for Primary Health Care & Equity has confirmed it will join the Consortium, so we have enough funds to continue for 12 months now

2nd update, on 23 Dec: The Australian Healthcare Reform Alliance has also joined the consortium – which means there is funding to continue it for 14 months from Nov 09 ).

The PHAA, which has coordinated the fund raising drive, will be the funds holder, and I will invoice them for $1,000 each month.

Of course, this raises all sorts of conflict of interest issues – a health journalist being funded by health organisations.

I am acutely conscious of and appreciative of such concerns, and am pleased that the funders have agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding regarding editorial independence. It states explicitly that they will have no say over Croakey’s editorial content or direction.

I also took a lead from the US community-funded journalism project, Spot Us, which seeks to address conflicts of interest by ensuring that no single sponsor can fund more than 20 per cent of a story. In a similar vein, I thought it better to have several organisations putting in a relatively small amount than to have only one or two involved, which might be more likely to engender a sense of ownership.

But I am certainly not claiming to be free of conflicts of interest or biases – as the project itself demonstrates.

This article (abstract is free, the full article is not) in the Medical Journal of Australia outlines some the background to the CHAMP project, including how it began as an informal collaboration between journalism and public health, with one aim being to influence the public debate around health issues, particularly to increase the focus on traditionally under-reported and under-served areas such as Indigenous health, and rural and remote health.

It has also sought to encourage public health minded people to engage in debate, and generally to stir the pot.

So Croakey and CHAMP have never been “straight journalism”, whatever that means. The project has set out to engender a different type of health debate to that occurring in the mainstream headlines.

It comes with an agenda, part of which is to promote open, pluralistic debate.

CHAMP now has more than 180 members. who have contributed hundreds of articles to the Crikey bulletin, as well as to posts and discussions at Croakey. These have reflected different opinions, views and interpretations of evidence – but generally come within a framework of concern for public health.

Other outcomes of the project include the Croakey Register of Unreleased Documents, the Crikey Register of Influence, and Professor Guy Maddern’s Diary of a Surgeon.

Coincidentally, the Medical Journal of Australia has just published this article (abstract free, pay for full), in which my fellow Crikey blogger Margaret Simons and I look at the implications for public health of the transition from mass media to “masses of media”.

This was written before the Crikey chop came down on Croakey, so its focus on philanthropic funding of public health journalism has since taken on a new personal relevance.

We conclude in the article that: “The new media revolution is underway, but it will be some time until its impact upon the health of our societies and populations is fully understood”.

Meanwhile, Croakey and CHAMP will continue as an experiment that crosses the boundaries of both new media and public health.

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12 comments

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12 thoughts on “Saving Croakey: an announcement

  1. Croakey

    William, I think there is some difference between a journalist writing articles or reports whose funders are self-evident and health professionals who:
    • lend their professional clout to industry marketing campaigns
    • allow their names to be put on ghostwritten articles, and do not always declare this
    • take funding for research which is more about marketing than furthering public health
    • accept gifts, prizes, travel, lavish meals etc
    • participate in or contribute to medical education which is marketing driven
    • allow their own or their institutions’ COIs to influence what they say in public or how they write up their findings.
    ETC!
    Of course, not all health professionals are involved in such practices. But there has been enough of this going on to raise widespread concerns. And, as I’m sure you know, it’s not only journalists who’ve been raising such concerns – plenty of journals, researchers and other groups have also been sounding the alarm about the impact of COIs on the integrity of health care and professional practice.
    I’m not arguing that COIs are not an issue for journalists. In fact I’ve been involved in putting together a research proposal to study exactly this issue, which recently received NHMRC funding. So it will be interesting to learn more about the extent of journalists’ COIs.

  2. William

    ‘It is impossible to be a freelancer working for a variety of different publications and organisations without having a COI list as long as your arm.’

    Just as it is difficult to be an effective clinician/researcher in a systemically underfunded health/academic system without creating some similar conflicts of interest.

    The difference is that for the clinician/researcher this is increasingly being portrayed as some sort of crime or malpractice, whilst you imply that for a journalist this is the accepted norm.

    Perhaps, Melissa, you have just discovering the reality that for all of us who work ‘in health’, be it as clinician, researcher, administrator or even journalist, there just isn’t enough independent funding to go round/get the job done! Tough isn’t it?

    Best Wishes, and Merry Christmas.

  3. Croakey

    William, updating the “about crikey” is on my long list of to-do jobs, along with updating the Croakey conflict of interest declaration which was published in draft form a while back, with the aim of eliciting comments before it is finalised. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/croakey/2009/10/05/croakey-and-conflicts-of-interest-what-do-you-think/
    Doing them both at the same time seems to make more sense. You will see, if you have a look, that my COIs are not limited to the funders of the Croakey Consortium. It is impossible to be a freelancer working for a variety of different publications and organisations without having a COI list as long as your arm. Then there are all the more subtle allegiances and relationships that develop over more than 20 years of covering a field – one of the hazards of the specialist reporter.

  4. William

    The point about conflict of interest is that it is usually not obvious. How will anyone know if you chose not to blog any information critical of one of your sponsors that might come to your notice?

    I’m not suggesting that Croakey should cease to exist, merely that it must now be seen as (at least potentially) the mouth piece of it’s sponsors. This is an unavoidable consequence of accepting the funding from a source that you might reasonably be expected to take an objective, independent view of.

    So how about identifying your sponsors in the ‘About Crikey’ section at the head of your page??

  5. Doctor Whom

    Congratulations Melissa good work.

    COI – Well that’s assuming Croakey influences anyone anyway………

    I’d sell out for less than $12 big ones.

  6. David Roberts

    Great news, very much appreciate the blog & was bewildered by its axing. Hopefully Crikey will be in a position to reinstate your funding next year.

  7. Croakey

    It’s good to see the COI issues debated. I hope that William and others will speak up if they think I, or Croakey generally, is giving unfair advantage to any of the Croakey Consortium funders.

  8. Bogdanovist

    So William, you’re alternative is that Croakey should not take the money, and hence cease to exist? Kind of a weird ‘destroy the village to save it’ kind of logic don’t you think?

  9. William

    “I also took a lead from the US community-funded journalism project, Spot Us, which seeks to address conflicts of interest by ensuring that no single sponsor can fund more than 20 per cent of a story. In a similar vein, I thought it better to have several organisations putting in a relatively small amount than to have only one or two involved, which might be more likely to engender a sense of ownership.”

    This is laughable really. Having taken such great issue with with numerous clinicians over conflicts of interest (with very little attempt to give any sort of unbiased coverage) do you really expect people to believe this sort of excuse.

    You are now beholden to organisations to which you may reasonably be expected to take a critical view.

    I’m sorry but you’ve blown it.

  10. Frank Campbell

    I can think of several things on Crikey that might be cut or reduced before Croakey. Anyway, well done.

  11. Jennifer Doggett

    Congrats on getting the funds together and on the great job you are doing with Croakey! And thanks to all the funders for helping keep this unique and stimulating forum alive, for at least another 12 months.

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