There is something profoundly sad and disturbing about an industry forced to give its highest awards to things that no longer exist, or are in decline. That’s what happened last Thursday night at the annual Walkley Awards – the first held in Melbourne since News Ltd’s Glenn Milne famously biffed Crikey founder Stephen Mayne.

At least that was a display of vigour, of a kind.

There always is an incongruity to the glitz and glam of the Walkleys. Clips of the best journalism, often including pictures and words about famine and profound human suffering, are played on giant screens as journos in dinner suits and cocktail dresses feed their faces on the usual sort of messed about hotel food that passes for a posh dinner.

But amongst all the alcohol fueled bonhomie, back slapping and back stabbing, this year’s Walkley Awards were the first when you could really feel the chill of the winds sweeping through journalism.

The highest award for the evening, the Gold Walkley, went to Channel Nine’s Sunday program, for a piece by Ross Coulthart and Nick Farrow about the “Butcher of Bega” — a doctor accused of abusing and mutilating the women in his care. The same piece won both the award for Television Current Affairs Reporting, and the award for Investigative Reporting. Yet the program — a frequent winner of Walkley Awards — no longer exists.

Other winners included the ABC’s Radio Eye program (Best Broadcast feature) which will finish this year, and illustrator Simon Bosch (Best Artwork) formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald, who was “let go” in the Fairfax bloodletting a few weeks ago.

Among those shortlisted for awards were a Julie-Anne Davies story in The Bulletin, a publication which no longer exists, and an article in Time magazine, a publication that has just announced the sacking of all its Australian journalists and the probable closure of its Australian bureau.

Meanwhile every joke and jibe from those at the platform was aimed at Fairfax — once the occupier of the high moral ground in Australian newspaper publishing, but now reviled as the company managed by people who don’t understand journalism, who have appointed editors who don’t have the confidence of their staff, and who have made some of the best journalists on their staff redundant.

I am told that Fairfax management booked two tables at the Walkleys. It must have been a very uncomfortable night for those who occupied them. Every time Fairfax management was mentioned — which was a lot, and always disparagingly — there were boos and hisses.

In a few short years Fairfax has gone from being the media company where serious journalists most aspired to work, to the butt of bitter jokes from all sides.

Nobody last Thursday night was arguing against the proposition that journalism is a profession facing a crisis — a profound paradigm shift, and enormous threats.

But it is worth remembering that the crisis is in the business models, not in the audience appetite for journalists’ work. There is in fact no evidence of reduced public appetite for true stories, professionally told.

It is time journalists and their audiences began to think about how to ensure the good things about journalism survive into the new media age.

Meanwhile, I am forced to wonder what dead and dying journalism outlets will get the awards next year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey