When Melissa Sweet sat with Professor Simon Chapman and journalist Mark Ragg back in 2007 it brought to light a problem in public health media.

In her time freelancing and working as a health journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald Sweet realised public health knowledge was being compromised and there were no systems in place to encourage academics to contribute to public health debates.

“When you’ve covered health for a while as a journalist you come to realise that a lot of the mainstream narratives around health are very misleading and problematic in particular the idea that people’s health can be saved by ‘miracle breakthroughs’, cures or treatments,” she told Central News.

“So much of our health is determined by environment, political and economic structures and colonisation history.”

Fast forward to 2022 and Croakey is trying to change the narrative. The organisation offers a range of professional services and social journalism to enable policymakers, practitioners, and communities to improve health and wellbeing.

The journey of Croakey however is elaborate. The idea was initially welcomed and launched on the Crikey website by publisher Eric Beecher in 2007 and pitched as a panel of ‘medical experts’ who provided articles about topical health issues. These were then located on the site under a blog forum.

When Crikey discontinued funding the project, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) established a consortium of health groups to put in a small amount of money to fund Croakey, which also helped protect Sweet’s editorial independence.

Overtime, contributors to Croakey have expanded and in June 2015 the Walkleys Grants for Innovation in Journalism offered $5,000 to fund the redevelopment of the project as a standalone platform.

We have seen in other countries that non-profit models can really fill the gaps in the mainstream media ecosystem.

In 2018 Croakey officially set up as a non-profit journalism site with Sweet appointed to editor-in-chief. She says that although Croakey is based as a public interest health organisation they technically don’t classify as one.

“This is because there is no pathway for non-profit journalism as there is no DGR (Deductable Gift recipient status) category for non-profit journalism,” she said.

According to Sweet this is a huge problem as they “can’t actually go for a lot of grants, because a lot of philanthropy organisations require you to have a DGR status”.

She said there is a desperate need for better policy to support public-interest journalism as it is heavily interlinked with public health.

“We have seen in other countries that non-profit models can really fill the gaps in the mainstream media ecosystem,” she said. “They can do really good work and it’s easier to align the values of journalism with a non-profit model than a for-profit.”

Creating a pathway around public-interest journalism is the most viable way in keeping the goal of Croakey alive.

“We’re very low budget. None of us are on a salary,” she said. “We’re a network of independent contractors. I would like to move to a sustainable funding model where we can offer full-time employment, especially to younger people.”

Despite these challenges Croakey is still producing public-health journalism that promotes health equity. This is guided by a multi-disciplinary group effort of journalists, public health academics, Indigenous health academics and practitioners who “do not let analytics drive our story selection”, said Sweet.

#CroakeyGo is one such attempt to innovate in public interest journalism known as ‘walking journalism’. The practice brings people together to walk and talk about common health issues and create content through live tweet, video interviews and articles.

For example, 100 people joined forces to follow a patient journey through Fitzroy to Carlton discussing mental health stress around inner Melbourne. At each step of the walk a different service was offered with health professionals or mental health consumers talking about their perspectives on mental health access.

The #NavigatingHealth emerging from this practice trended nationally receiving 13.35 million impressions.

Probably the most successful service to date is the Croakey Conference News Service. Croakey journalists are funded by conference organisers to attend conferences to help disseminate knowledge and news from events. This model “moderates the challenges Croakey faces with funding whilst controlling coverage,” said Sweet.

Croakey’s contribution to journalism and media innovation is reflected in their Strategic Plan. One of the five strategic priorities is to privilege Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s voices. This is done so by ensuring stories about Indigenous and public health are written by Indigenous academics or organisations. Currently, the board at Croakey has Indigenous academics, including the current chair Professor Megan Williams.

Croakey continues to operate as a multi-disciplinary team and a collaborative effort, but while opportunities in the public interest journalism space are present may remain unfeasible under the current operating environment.

Sweet added: “The main channel to combat this is to develop more sustainable funding to encourage young people to join Croakey.”