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TV & Radio

Aug 31, 2011

The quality journalism project: @Colvinius, king of the tweets

Every weekday afternoon, Mark Colvin wraps up the day that was as host of ABC's PM. This week, he's the latest expert in Crikey's quality journalism project.

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Every weekday afternoon, Mark Colvin wraps up the day that was as host of ABC’s PM. He’s presented the show — one of the ABC’s flagship news and current affairs programs — since 1997, interviewing and examining the critical world and local events. An avid Twitter user, Colvin often tweets and retweets 100+ links and comments daily from his personal account, with Leigh Sales telling Crikey if she could only follow one person on Twitter, it’d be @Colvinius.

Previous quality journalism project experts Alan Kohler and Wendy Bacon both put PM as their number one source for journalism in Australia. But what does its host regard as the top journalism sources in Australia?

Each week Crikey‘s quality journalism project quizzes a new person on how they define good journalism and where they go to get it. We’ve asked for your nominations of experts you’d like to hear from — and yes, Colvin was one of them — so please email us if there’s more. Stay turned for Mumbrella founder Tim Burrowes, George Megalogenis from The Australian, and editor of New Matilda Marni Cordell in coming weeks.

But this week, it’s over to PM host Mark Colvin…

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

MC: I’m more interested in quality reporting than quality journalism. I make the distinction because I think the essence of the job is, or should be, reporting. It’s about getting out there and seeing things happen, meeting people and hearing what they have to say, talking to people on the phone or via email or social media, but it’s always about gathering facts and figures and opinions from elsewhere.

To define it as a negative: I hate journalism that starts with a conclusion and sets out to find the ‘facts’ to prove it. In the end, that congeals, with people who practise it, into a predictability which for me makes them almost unreadable. When I was at Four Corners (and at other times) I’ve occasionally found myself in places where I had read other journalists’ work. Arriving on the ground, and going out to find out what was really happening, I was amazed by how much they’d been able to ignore — because they’d started out with a particular thesis.

Mark Colvin’s personal top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia.

  1. Twitter: I’ll go out on a limb here and say Twitter. I follow about 1,700 people, and I get a great deal of material I otherwise wouldn’t see — Australian and international news — extremely early as a result. And I’m not just talking about breaking news, though for that Twitter is exceptional. Through links, I see most of the best stories from the national media too, and many thought provoking features and magazine stories.
  2. ABC radio: The radios at home are mostly tuned to the ABC. For instance, from 7-8 am on Radio National — news, early AM, and half an hour of Fran Kelly. Throughout the day, the backbone provided by radio news, fleshed out by the current affairs programs (the ones I’m not fronting, obviously), gives you a great deal of what you want to know about the city, the State, the country and the world. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
  3. The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age online: Old habits die hard, and I’ve been reading the SMH since 1973. It’s a thinner, and often extremely badly subbed paper now, but the advent of its nicely-designed App persuaded me to keep taking it. It does keep me in touch with the local, when my mind for the rest of the day is often on the national and the international.
  4. The Australian: My grandfather used to take certain magazines because they infuriated him, and The Oz is close to this category for me. It has some of the best reporters in the country. Its coverage of aboriginal affairs has often been superb, and on a story like Mohammed Haneef it took off like a greyhound and pursued it brilliantly. But it tends to lack proportion. There were genuinely fraudulent and incompetent scandals in the BER, for example, but the paper set out to prove that they were so systemic that the entire BER was a massive rort. It sounds a very ABC thing to say, but could we have a bit more balance?
  5. The Australian Literary Review: And speaking of The Australian, it still does the country the great public service of subsidising the Australian Literary Review. Long may it do so.
  6. The Australian Financial Review: I’d read it more often if it was more web friendly. I tend towards content that I can share on Twitter – my twitter feed consists predominantly of links which I put out for interest or discussion.
  7. The Monthly: Have been a subscriber for a while. I read a lot of long-form journalism, and this is the best source in Australia.

List stops at seven because that’s the way it is… I pay a great deal of attention to the rest of the world, and you did specifically ask about quality journalism in Australia.

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

MC: I listen to ABC Radio in the morning, as detailed above. Then I read the Australian papers.

Then I go to foreign papers: New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times in the US, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent in UK, Le Monde in France, Spiegel (English version) in Germany, El Mundo in Spain. Sometimes I skim, sometimes I go deeper. I listen to The World Today at lunchtime.

I’ll also look at sites like Arts and Letters Daily, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish blog, now hosted at The Daily Beast. And the New Yorker, New York Review of Books and London Review of Books are all useful sources of interesting long form journalism.

Another is @longformorg, on Twitter, which will often deliver stories I’ve missed elsewhere.

I check Twitter about every 20 minutes during this, and I find that big breaking stories come to me: I don’t have to go looking for them. My job involves being ready for just about anything. I need to be able to interview intelligently on a vast variety of subjects at short notice. Therefore, a huge amount of my daily work is just eclectic research. I can read as far and wide as I like, and so I do.

In the evening, because my working day finishes at 7pm, I don’t tend to turn the television on till 8.30pm, if at all. I’m generally cooking and eating dinner. That means I usually miss 7.30, but I often catch up on it the next day via iView. Monday nights I go for the full Four Corners/Media Watch/Q&A/Lateline package. I’m a longtime Lateline fan, though on the nights before dialysis, I can’t always go the distance.

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

MC: I was an ABC cadet in the year that Watergate brought down a President. I read every word I could get hold of about it, and followed every development. A year or two later, I ended up interviewing participants like the President’s Counsel, John W Dean. It was enormously influential on my generation of young journalists because it showed the power of just painstakingly doing the job, regardless of the pressure. It’s easily forgotten what an incremental process it was. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein just kept on adding detail after detail, and the picture built until it was harder and harder for legal authorities, in particular, to ignore it.

Another exponent of the art of accruing detail is Chris Masters. I shared an office with him for a few years, and it’s hard to go past ‘The Big League‘ and ‘The Moonlight State‘ [on Four Corners] as examples of great TV investigative journalism that changed things in a big way. The Big League started out as an investigation into possible corruption in one sporting code, but expanded into a story that shook the foundations of the NSW judiciary and its politics. Television, back in the eighties, wasn’t supposed to have that power.

And despite the long and pointless slanging match over who really exposed police corruption in Queensland, there’s no doubt in my mind that the sheer story-telling ability of The Moonlight State, and the fact that for the first time, Queenslanders were able to see the results of corruption on their screens, created the critical mass that changed everything. Working with Chris was instructive. He kept a big bound notebook for every story, and his notetaking and record-keeping were exemplary. They needed to be, because much of his reporting landed him with defamation cases, which, even though he was in the right, could drag on for years.

*If you’ve got any comments on the quality journalism project, please email boss@crikey.com.au

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