Unions claim Guardian Witness project is a threat to freelance journalists

The Guardian Witness citizen journalism project has come in for criticism from journalism unions.

Guardian News and Media launched the new website this month, asking readers to submit text, photographs and video to be used on the website and in print.

The platform also sets readers assignments for certain weeks, which will take the form of “exclusive competitions”.

Journalism training company the London Journalism Centre has quoted both the Chartered Institute of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists expressing reservations about the scheme.

According to the centre, CIOJ president Charlie Harris said: “We’ve got no problem with citizen journalism as such, but if they are commissioning people for stories then they’ll be undercutting paid freelance journalists.

“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 centre also spoke to the NUJ, which said it would be discussing the site with the newspaper’s union chapel.

A spokesperson told the centre: “If you’re providing core content to a newspaper, the NUJ believes that it should be paid for.

“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.”

Guardian social and communites editor Joanna Geary defended the scheme, describing it as a new way to improve the website's journalism.

"The aim of GuardianWitness 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,” she said.

"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.

"Our readers around the world have always played a key role in alerting us to interesting events and topics and have been contributing to our journalism for years. This is simply a new way for people to share their content and expertise with our journalists."

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