When Jason Blake attends tonight’s opening of Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps at the Ensemble Theatre it will be the last theatre review he files for The Sydney Morning Herald. Elissa Blake has also written her last stories for Fairfax Media (with three more to be published in The Sun-Herald).

The Blakes have been high-profile arts writers for the SMH and Sun Herald for the past 10 years – Elissa as a freelance feature writer and Jason as the paper’s chief theatre critic since 2010. But they have been told that their new arts website Audrey Journal, which focusses exclusively on the Sydney arts scene, represents a conflict of interest and is “incompatible” with them continuing to contribute to the SMH.

Elissa and Jason Blake. Photograph © Steven Siewert

Speaking to Limelight, Elissa says: “Jason and I chose to create a new arts website for Sydney audiences in a direct response to the reduction in arts coverage across mainstream media. We are exploring a new way of presenting arts stories to audiences in a digital space and new ways to fund this kind of work. We invited the arts industry to invest in the creation of editorial content for audiences rather than fund the content second-hand through advertising. As editors, Jason and I maintain full editorial independence over the making of these stories, and we have recruited the highest calibre freelance arts journalists and photographers to work with us. We are also inviting artists and audience members to contribute to the site.”

Yesterday, the Blakes were told by the SMH that Audrey Journal could be seen as a conflict of interest and that they would no longer be able to write for the paper as contributors.

In an email sent to them, Monique Farmer, Life Editor at Fairfax Media, wrote: “We are deeply committed to our independence not least when it comes to arts coverage. Any conflict of interest, perceived or real, is of the greatest concern, hence the reason we are making this decision. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for the future and with Audrey, and to thank for your much valued contribution to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald over many years.”

A Fairfax Media spokesperson told Limelight: “Some people seem to have a different view of what ‘Independent. Always.’ means. In the world of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald it means not having a venture beholden to the people you are reviewing. Members or advertisers – it washes out the same.”

Audrey Journal went live on November 20. In its first week, it published the Philip Parsons Lecture given by Nick Schlieper at Belvoir, the Shylock Diaries by award-winning actor Mitchell Butel who recently played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice for Bell Shakespeare, and the Rose Byrne Female Arts Leader Scholarship Address given by playwright and director Julia Patey at Australian Theatre for Young People, among other stories.

Founding members who have supported the launch of Audrey Journal include Sydney Festival, Sydney Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, Belvoir, Griffin, Adelaide Festival, Merrigong Theatre Co, Riverside Theatres, Hayes Theatre Co and Sport for Jove. However Elissa emphasises that: “Every story, photograph, review and listing has been selected, written and produced with full editorial independence. Audrey’s reviews are written without fear or favour.”

Elissa started at The Age as a cadet journalist in 1993. She moved to Sydney to join Rolling Stone magazine in 1997, where she was the Editor for five years. She has been contributing to the arts pages and feature sections of The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years.

Jason has been the chief theatre critic for the Sydney Morning Herald since 2010. Before that he was the theatre critic for The Sun-Herald. He has also contributed stories to Limelight. He trained as a theatre director at NIDA and the VCA.