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TV & Radio

Aug 17, 2011

The quality journalism project: the man of the markets, Alan Kohler

Alan Kohler is the biggest name in Australian financial journalism. But who does he read and regard as the best in Australian journalism?

You know the financial markets are grim if Alan Kohler and his graphs appears twice in the same ABC news bulletin. He hosts ABC’s weekly Inside Business and appears nightly on ABC News for a markets update. As founder, executive director and editor-in-chief of Australian Independent Business Media, you’ll also find his face and writings splashed across the four websites AIBM publishes: Eureka Report, Business Spectator, Climate Spectator and Technology Spectator.

But who does he read and regard as the best?

Kohler is the latest expert in the quality journalism project, where Crikey quizzes the top experts in the country about good journalism, why it matters and where they go to get it. So far we’ve featured Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales and Chris Mitchell.

But today we turn to the man of the markets, Alan Kohler…

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

AK: It’s easier to say what it’s not — which is that it’s not primarily for entertainment or titillation. It’s designed to inform. That’s got to be the intention of it anyway.

CRIKEY: Why is it important?

AK: Because there needs to be a flow of information and analysis that is not influenced by commercial or political or other vested interests. Part of the definition of quality journalism is that it’s independent and not subject to influence by commercial or other vested interests. In order for society to function properly, that’s required.

CRIKEY: How positive do you feel about the future of journalism in Australia?

AK: I have mixed feelings. Quality journalism is under threat, largely because the business model is under threat. But I also feel like it’s more important than ever, more important than it’s ever been. I feel optimistic about it because it’s important and therefore it seems to me that society will find a way to preserve quality journalism. And maybe that’s a Pollyannaish thing to say.

My son is doing a Masters at university at the moment. He wanted to be journalist and I was reasonably negative about it and said you’ll never get a job, there’s not enough jobs going around and if you do get a job, you won’t get paid much. But as it’s gone on, he’s become more and more fired up about it and the better trained he is, the more optimistic I am or clearly I see the distinction between a trained journalist and everyone else.

One of the reasons I felt negative about journalism is there are so many people now who can call themselves journalists. There’s bloggers, there’s twitter, there’s citizen journalism, there’s a whole business of journalism that’s been fragmented and that’s caused me to feel pessimistic about the profession. However after talking to my son about it, I’ve come to feel like we’re heading into a time where the training that a journalist receives both at university and on the job, in a proper job, is more and more important and not only that, it is going to be more valued.

CRIKEY: How do you feel about the quality of citizen journalists? Do you need traditional training to keep the quality?

AK: One of the problems with journalism is that you don’t have to be qualified in order to practise it. In order to practise law, you have to be a lawyer. In order to practise medicine, you have to be a doctor. But in order to practise journalism you don’t have to have a journalism qualification. I’m not sure that would ever have been possible to impose that qualification standard on journalism, even if the government or somebody was interested in doing it, I don’t think journalists were interested in allowing that, however that’s now opened the profession to have anyone call them self a journalist if they want to. We are in danger of the definition of what is journalism being undermined.

A lot of what I read to be informed about things are blogs by people who are not journalists. In many cases they might be experts in something else, an economist or an engineer or a scientist doing the blog who knows a darn sight more than the journalist knows. In a way, the reason this has occurred is simply that the ability to publish has been democratised by the internet. You don’t have to own a press, anyone can publish, anyone can broadcast, that’s a massive change to communication. It’s not stoppable. So then, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to examine what it is that it means to be a journalist. If an economist writes a blog, is that journalism? Or not? Because it kind of looks like journalism. It’s definitely a form of journalism. It isn’t finding stuff out — though sometimes it is. I think it’s all very troubling and challenging to the whole definition and question of what is journalism and who’s a good journalist and what constitutes a good journalist.

Alan Kohler’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia

AK: We can take it as read that top of the pops for me are the four websites I’m directly involved with myself — Business Spectator, Eureka Report, Technology Spectator and Climate Spectator — which are all fabulous. Below are my 10 next best.

  1. PM: I think Mark Colvin is terrific, his interviews are great. It’s a really good hour’s worth of information. It’s on the pace. I don’t say every story they do is fantastic but at the end of PM you know everything that’s happened today, and mostly why.
  2. Australian Story: Most of the time this programme absolutely nails it. I like the reporter-less style and the focus on those whom the story is about.
  3. The Australian: Mainly because it’s got Paul Kelly in it. I don’t like the capricious, vendetta-style of editing and the tiresome and predictable tone, but they have the best national affairs writers in the country, led by Paul. It’s the main source of serious national affairs content – so there by default almost.
  4. Crikey: I think Crikey makes a real effort and does terrific work. Sophie’s leadership is high quality, Bernard Keane is very good indeed.
  5. Phillip Adams: His interviews are always well informed. He’s just so fantastic, extraordinary really.
  6. The Monthly: They do a good job. It’s about the only place you can get long-form writing. The frequency of it is right, monthly. There’s always at least two or three articles in the magazine that are worth reading, which is I think a good strike rate.
  7. Four Corners: It’s good, no doubt about it. They have terrific journalists — Sarah Ferguson, Andrew Fowler, Sally Neighbour, Marian Wilkinson — these are really good, really high quality journalists, in a long-term culture of strong journalism.
  8. Shaun Carney (The Age): I always read Shaun. He’s calmly thoughtfully analytical — always tells me something I hadn’t thought of.
  9. Gerard Whateley: I think he’s a really good journalist. I’m a big football fan, so football’s an important part of my life and the journalism I consume. I mostly look for Gerard’s stuff, although I wish he wrote more.
  10. Robyn Williams: He’s curious, he’s experienced, he knows what he’s talking about. He produces really interesting material on his program on Radio National.

CRIKEY: What media do you consume on a daily basis?

AK: First thing I do is access The Financial Times online. I don’t read papers anymore, only if I’m on planes. I read The Australian online and I read the Financial Review online, for the purposes of seeing what the competitors are doing.

The things I subscribe to on paper are the New York Review of Books, Harpers and more often than not I’ll buy The Spectator in the newsagent. I read them for the sheer pleasure of the writing, mainly, and ideas in them.

To find out what’s going on, I read the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Australian, the Australian Financial Review. I’ve given up on the Fairfax papers. I might have a look at the front page. I don’t check the tabloids.

I listen to AM most mornings, PM most nights. I listen to Phillip Adams at 10 o’clock each night. I watch Four Corners on TV. I do watch the ABC TV news. I watch Media Watch. I’m not in the habit of watching TV on Sunday mornings (even though I’m on TV Sunday mornings myself), so I occasionally watch Insiders but not very often. But when I see it, I like it.

I’ve got a whole thing of blogs that I look at. There’s one called Naked Capitalism, another called Credit Writedowns, another called A Fistful of Euros. I always keep an eye on Paul Krugman’s blog. I look at Arts & Letters Daily all the time. Also, Slate and Salon. I do look at The Guardian and the London Telegraph online.

I actually get a lot from Twitter. A lot of links of things to read, that’s what I find most useful [about it]. I also try to provide links where I can. I find Twitter fairly demanding but like everybody I do it in bursts. I notice some people do it fairly steadily during the day, I don’t know how they do that. I do it in bursts at night or when I have a spare half hour.

CRIKEY: What particular stories  –  either Australian or international  –  do you think are classic examples of quality journalism?

  • Paul Toohey and Nicholas Rothwell’s work in The Australian on indigenous Australians.
  • Nick Davies’ investigation into News of the World in The Guardian.

If you’ve got any comments on the quality journalism project or suggestions of journalists you’d like us to contact, please email us.

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