A Crikey sealed section (Sep 16) questioning the productivity of The Age’s Gold Walkley winner Andrew Rule has prompted some supportive correspondence from his admiring colleagues which has kick-started a debate about the resourcing of feature writing and investigative journalism in Australia.

Gold Walkley winner Andrew Rule had a cracking piece in Saturday’s Age on Australia’s most thuggish union leader, the ousted AMWU Victorian secretary Craig Johnston.

It is made more interesting by the fact that out of control unions will be one of the biggest issues in the upcoming state election and Rule’s wife, Di Rule, is the endorsed Liberal candidate for Jeff Kennett’s seat of Burwood, a seat the Libs must win back to seize power.

Rule is your classic feature writer who coasts along comfortably but occasionally produces a terrific piece which silences the critics who question his output. And he can always point to that Gold Walkley for his “Geoff Clarke: power a rape” piece last year.

Pamela Williams was another such example on the Fin Review for her small number of very big hits. Just ask Nick Whitlam what it’s like to have Pam Williams coming after you.

We did a search of The Age’s and discovered that Rule has only had 30 by-lines over the past 12 months, but there have been several substantial pieces and his total published output is 33,609 words or an average of 1120 words a piece.

Crikey publishes more than this every week but the style of journalism is world’s apart. We’re the classic sausage machine that pumps out the copy without making too many phone calls or checking too many facts. In fact, we only write about 20 per cent of what is published, the rest is contributed. Rule’s feature on Johnston would have taken many days of research and literally hundreds of phone calls over a couple of months.

That said, a feature writer really should be able to manage a story a week on average and Rule probably should aim to lift his work rate.

Crikey worked at The Age for 11 months in 1992 and the Age’s archive claims I had 462 by-lined pieces that year, averaging about 400 words a pop. There may be some double counting where stories changed between editions and much of this was easy press release journalism or just recycling stock exchange announcements so don’t start thinking that every word was a gem like what Rule produces.

The only person who had more by-lines in The Age that year was fellow workaholic and control-freak Michelle Grattan who racked up an incredible 626 by-lines. How does Gratts cope these days with just two columns a week?

Anyway, it’s worth having a debate about the output of feature writers and the merits of by-line counts. Let’s name the hard-working feature writers and also debate whether there are a some just coasting along working a few hours a day from home or enjoying lots of long lunches.

ends

Jonathon Este’s defence of Andrew Rule

Stephen,

I don’t know Andrew Rule and I don’t work on the same paper as him, or anything. But to apply a “never mind the quality, feel the width”-style analysis to his work rate is a little rough. As you rightly say, Crikey puts out more in a week than Rule in a year, but there are more of you and (as you noted) the vast majority of what you post is from contributors.

But wait a gosh-darned minute! This is irrelevant, isn’t it? Do we remember Woodward and Bernstein for their considerable body of work over many years of investigative journalism? Nup. We remember that they brought down Richard Nixon over Watergate.

As you know and as anyone working in modern newsprint will attest, the offices of newspapers are full of people who can punch out 1000 words a day without straining their synapses too vigorously. They are known as “hacks” and you find them everywhere from the Press Gallery to features to the arts sections of most newspapers (my own – needless to say – excepted).

Equally there are brilliant operators whose ideas and skill at editing and presenting stories never receive a by-line and as a result they remain fairly anonymous – which is, I’m sure, where they are quite happy to remain.

Rule has produced some first-class work and should be congratulated for that. Lets not get too hung up on the by-line files or we’ll all end up facing the beancounters.

“Yes Mr Joyce, Ulysses is a terrific book, but did it really take you 14 years to write? Perhaps if you cut down on those long lunches – or if you tried your hand at a detective story or two you could bring your work rate up a bit….”

Jonathon Este

The Australian

Sandra Lee’s defence of Andrew Rule

“Front and centre, Crikey, stand corrected. Andrew Rule is among the best reporters/writers in Australian journalism. Your “call” for a weekly output or story tally from him is ridiculously misguided. Good journalism is not about words per column inch or bylines per week (or publishing 80 percent of material unchecked), it’s about what’s on the page.

Every word Rule writes is finessed and checked and re-checked. He is a writer’s writer and a reporter’s reporter. (we’ll forgive him the Chopper books, but at least they put his kids through school).

Not only is he a quality reporter and writer – a rare find to get both in the one package – he is fearless, well-researched, and also generous with his knowledge and has always, ever since I worked with him on The Herald in Melbourne nearly two decades ago, been a great mentor and inspiration to younger reporters.

He was one of the few reporters who actually took time to help out the new cadets, and he did it without being patronising, pompous, or arrogant. He taught me the value of true mentoring, and the importance of nurturing talent. Not only that, he’s a bloody top bloke who doesn’t take himself too seriously (unlike some other boring broadsheeters). If every reporter wrote one Andy Rule story a year, they’d be doing a good job.

Sandra Lee

Freelance journalist & author

CRIKEY: Agreed that Rule produces some terrific material, as an Age subscriber I just want more of it. Replace some of those tired lefties and give him a weekly column on top of his features or run him off the front more often. Get him on radio or one of those TV chat shows flying the flag for The Age as their star reporter and writer. Work your best asset hard. That said, his material on Dennis Tanner took a long time but was absolutely terrific and The Age have really squeezed the resources dedicated to investigative journalism so maybe he should be just left alone to produce fortnightly big hits for the paper. And there are other feature writers at The Age who are arguably less productive than Rule. For instance, we’d love to read more big hits from nice writers such as Gary Tippett and Julianne Davies. People like Stephen Bartholomeusz work very hard to produce a 1000 word column every day. If everyone worked as hard as Bartho, The Age would be a much better paper.

Matthew Ricketson’s defence of Andrew Rule

“I can’t let your time and motion approach to journalism go by. And if you are going to produce an example of a lazy feature writer Andrew Rule is not your man.

I acknowledge that you see differences between the kind of press release or one call stories that you were doing at The Age in 1992 and Rule’s features but you need to compare apples with apples. That is, compare news reporters and roundspeople with news reporters and roundspeople and feature writers with feature writers.

Also, within features there is a world of difference between, say, a celebrity interview and an investigative feature of the kind that Rule does. His huge piece on Arthur Smith, the guy accused of various murders long ago, took lots and lots of legwork rather than a one hour interview over lattes in an inner-city smokehouse.

I’m thinking a lot about these things because I am writing a textbook on feature writing for journalism students (and journos too). I certainly know of various feature writers whose wordage is under par, but Rule is a genuine heavy hitter and a rarity among feature writers in that many of his pieces contain real investigative muscle.

I wouldn’t blow off a Gold Walkley either, as you appear to do. They are not easily come by.

Cheers, Matthew Ricketson

Journalism Program Coordinator

RMIT University

CRIKEY: We’d welcome more feedback to this debate. How about we try to rank Australia’s best feature writers?

Peter Fray

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