Creating a ‘town square’ for workers online

Working Life brings the concept of the labour press into the 21st century, says Mark Phillips. Cartoon by Andrew Weldon

There was a time when papers with names like The Worker, Labour Herald and Common Cause proudly sat on news stands alongside The Sydney Morning Herald, The Argus or The Courier-Mail.

Fuelled by a mistrust of the “capitalist press” and a desire to give voice to their achievements and aspirations, unions have been publishers as long as they have existed. In his Labor in Print (1975), HJ Gibbney listed 488 newspapers published by the labour movement in Australia between 1850 and 1939. But as the 20th century progressed, the labour press slowly declined and most of the great names of the past disappeared. Some – like the AWU’s The Australian Worker and the CFMEU’s Common Cause – continue as glossy union journals, but their audience is mostly limited to members of their own union.

For a long time, there has been no strong and single voice for the union movement. And it is this tradition of the labour press that Working Life is seeking to revive. Our website is now almost two years old, and has published hundreds of stories from throughout the labour movement.

Established and supported by the ACTU, Working Life is an editorially driven website that, apart from continuing a labour press tradition, is also a case study for the possibilities of owned media in the fragmented online marketplace that has created potentially fatal disruption for legacy media organisations.

We launched in April 2013 with the ambition to be a virtual town square in which the union movement could meet and exchange ideas and stories. Our mission is simple: to provide news, opinion and features to an audience that does not see their values and beliefs, nor the reality of their lives, reflected in the mainstream media.

We seek to inform, entertain, provoke and inspire through stories that also build the sense of a movement that has contributed greatly to the development of modern Australia.

Working Life was partly born out of frustration at the over-arching negativity towards unionism in the mainstream press, the decline of serious industrial reporting due to the shrinking numbers of journalists, and the difficulty unions face in communicating with the public through mainstream media.

All serious media organisations devote pages of copy or many hours of airtime to coverage of business and finance, and the views of businesspeople are taken as gospel. But the other side of the equation – the voices of workers – are not given anything like parity.

Even an organisation as institutionally important and credible in Australia as the ACTU struggles to get its views across in the media, and when it does so it’s drowned out by counter views from the business community.

A key part of establishing Working Life was a recognition that this institutional bias was not going to change. It was no longer acceptable to get a five-second grab or a two-sentence quote in a story, and a story on the left-hand page of a small-circulation national or financial daily wasn’t really cutting it. The solution was to put more resources into creating our own content and distributing it through our own media.

Having covered industrial relations for the Herald Sun in the early 2000s, I knew the union movement had many more interesting stories than the mainstream media ever published. It was a constant source of frustration that any “good news” stories – stories that positively portrayed unions or their causes – that I’d pitch to the news desk would be rejected because they didn’t fit the paper’s editorial stance.

Moving to work at the ACTU as its media officer in 2008, I could see from the inside just how many stories were never amplified beyond a union’s own membership, or were so deliberately distorted or unintentionally misreported by the media that they might as well have not been covered at all. More than once, I mused that if only the union movement could publish itself…

Andrew Weldon, Social Media Muffin

Andrew Weldon, Social Media Muffin

The greatest breakthrough from the internet has been the boom of diversity in the media, as the old gatekeepers have watched their influence diminish and a new tide of small, innovative start-ups have been able to provide audiences with alternatives and encourage a true two-way conversation.

The opportunities are enormous for small media operators when today’s consumers of news can pick and choose content from a smorgasbord of sources, rather than a handful of monolithic sources.

In a way, the genesis of Working Life happened well over a decade ago when, in 1999, the weekly Workers Online – irreverent, informative, intelligent and frequently controversial – was published. Edited by Peter Lewis, then the media officer at the NSW Labor Council, and backed by the Labor Council’s then secretary, Michael Costa, it brought a fresh tabloid sensibility to the coverage of union and industrial affairs, mixing short news stories with longer features, set piece interviews, book reviews, sport and the much-loved “Piers Watch” and “Tool of the Week”.

Workers Online lasted seven years and published 356 editions before Lewis folded it at the end of 2006, ironically less than a year before one of the union movement’s greatest triumphs – the Your Rights at Work campaign that defeated John Howard’s WorkChoices laws.

Workers Online came about, like most good things, from a discussion in a pub in late 1998,” says Lewis. “Noel Hester, who was at the time working with Social Change Online, had noticed that the new media officer at the Labor Council – me – had been putting up lots of media releases on the institutional website: ‘Surely we could do something more with them’.

“It was a good question – we had a lot of issues – but the idea of pitching them all to the media was becoming harder as the industrial rounds, which in their heyday had a fraternity of more than a dozen reporters, had begun to fall away.

“As a former reporter on the Tele, I knew the stories were there and there were great little gems each week at the weekly Labor Council meeting – but without journos, they were disappearing into the ether.”

The idea of a workers’ newspaper germinated. But would it be possible online?

A successful pitch was made to Michael Costa for an online workers publication in the tradition of the old union newspapers – “tabloid and in-your-face”.

But by 2006, Lewis believed the original need for a union publication had been made redundant by the revival of tabloid and TV media interest in the movement as a result of the Your Rights at Work campaign, which his company, EMC, was heavily involved in.

“The niche we set out to occupy has been back-filled,” he wrote in his final editorial in 2006.

But he spoke too soon. And today, we are back in the same position that led to the establishment of Workers Online 15 years ago.

Working Life differs from Workers Online in that we aren’t a once-a-week publication. In the intervening decade and a half, the internet has been transformed by social media, blogs, the emergence of sites like BuzzFeed and the ubiquity of smartphones that mean we are never truly offline.

We publish every day, beginning with our summary of what’s making news, “Clocking On”, at 8am. We aim to publish at least three major features a week, augmented by other stories each day.

While we like to break news and will jump onto a big story if it has merit, we do not aim to be some kind of union wire service, regurgitating media releases and hastily rewriting stories that have appeared elsewhere. We have no interest in participating in the churnalism of the 24-hour news cycle or competing with generalist legacy media. Instead we seek to provide depth, context and analysis – which are rarely afforded to worker organisations by mainstream media who are all too obsessed with being first to a story in the 24-hour cycle.

We are not greatly interested in internal union dynamics, and we are not a wonky IR publication that covers every decision in the commission and every dispute. There are already capable, subscriber-only newsletters – Workplace Express and Workforce, to name two – that do that for a readership made up of IR practitioners, union officials, HR managers and lawyers. But those stories don’t interest our perceived audience.

We enjoy parody, satire and the offbeat. One of our most popular columns is the “Hall of Shame”, where we mercilessly satirise a “class enemy” such as Gina Rinehart, Maurice Newman or Andrew Forrest. When there is a breaking news story – such as the minimum wage decision or the death of Gough Whitlam – we will cover it with a live blog.

We also publish lots of opinion – not just from union leaders but from other “progressives” such as John Falzon, Cassandra Goldie, Mark Zirnsak, Wayne Swan and Andrew Leigh.

Through links with Equal Times, a similar publication from the International Trade Union Confederation, and the LabourStart news organisation – whose Asia-Pacific editor Andrew Casey is an old newspaper and union hack – we also bring an international perspective to the site with union-related stories from other parts of the world.

At Working Life, we also focus on storytelling because our stories are one of the strongest assets the union movement has. “My Working Life” allows workers to tell their stories – what they do, why they like their job, why they are in the union and what are their main issues at work – in their own words. Through “My Working Life”, readers have learnt about Frank the firefighter, Penny the social worker, Chris the milk factory worker and Paul the steelworker. Each has their own struggles and triumphs, but what brings them together is they are all members of a movement of almost 2 million.

Probably my two favourite stories in the last 12 months have been Sam Wallman’s comic strip about the story of the minimum wage, and our two-part series – totalling about 4000 words – going behind the scenes of Australia’s most controversial union, the CFMEU, to examine the role they play on building sites every day.

The Wallman comic strip, made up of 34 frames, was a huge hit and our readers loved it when we profiled Sam and revealed that his day job was working as an organiser for the National Union of Workers.

The CFMEU story was important because while the union may generate negative headlines and vitriol, it plays a crucial and under-recognised role in making sure construction sites are safe, that workers are paid properly, and in training and educating generations of construction workers.

Another two-part series, based on a long interview with Greg Combet, was also popular, while we scooped all other media organisations who covered the National Commission of Audit in May with our angle about the recommendation to abolish the minimum wage.

We knew we were having an impact when we were attacked by Andrew Bolt in one of his Herald Sun columns last year.

Working Life has a fraction of the resources of other media organisations – our one full-time staffer is me. But we are fortunate that we can draw on the newsrooms of union media and communications staff around Australia, some of whom – like Ian Munro at United Voice, Julian Lee at the CPSU and Neil Wilson at the AMWU – have had distinguished journalism careers with mainstream organisations before coming to work for unions.

Working Life strives to be a voice for a movement, but not for an institution. The ACTU remains our financial backer, but we are not a mouthpiece for the ACTU – it has its own website for that purpose. Indeed, if Working Life was no more than a Pravda for the ACTU, it would be fatal to our credibility as a publication.

So what is the future for Working Life? Currently the site exists through the support of Dave Oliver and the ACTU, but like all media outlets, the challenge is to become financially self-sustainable and to monetise what we do by drawing in more advertising. We have proved the model works and that labour-owned media can find a niche in the online world.

But the really exciting potential for Working Life in years to come will be to collaborate and build relationships with a wide range of progressive organisations and think tanks, to provide a powerful platform for them to communicate their views and ideas as they face the same issues with mainstream media as unions do.

Under this model, our site could grow into a Down Under equivalent of the highly successful Think Progress website in the United States, a left-leaning news and opinion publication that grew out of a blog published by the Centre for American Progress, and now has 1.4 million likes on Facebook and 350,000 followers on Twitter.

In the meantime, we’re happy to continue delivering quality news and opinion to an audience that is sick of being told what to think by corporate media from the big end of town.

Mark Phillips is editor of Working Life, and a former industrial reporter for the Herald SunAndrew Weldon is a Melbourne-based freelance cartoonist. His work appears regularly in The Age, The Sunday Age and The Big Issue Australia.