George Megalogenis is a popular man, judging by the plethora of nominations we received to have him involved in this project. He spent over a decade in the Canberra press gallery, is a senior writer at The Australian, a regular on ABC’s Insiders, runs the highly regarded blog Meganomics (where he bans partisan commenters saying “Ju-liar” or “Phoney Tony”), recently wrote a Quarterly Essay on the last election and is currently working on another book.

But who does Megalogenis think produces the best journalism in the country?

Crikey’s quality journalism project grills the best in the business on how they define good journalism and where they go to get it. So far we’ve picked the brains of Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin and George Negus. If there’s someone else you’d love to hear from, please let us know.

But this week it’s over to George …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

GM: The trick in our business is to inform and entertain. Partly because I was raised on a tabloid, I’ve always put a premium on being readable. And there’s nothing I loathe more in media than to read one of my own articles back that defaults to jargon or assumes specialist knowledge of the reader.

Especially when you’re covering national affairs — where a lot of your content is reporting what someone else has generated i.e. a leader or a government department or a monetary authority — it’s important for your information to be readable. Not dumbed down but it does have to entertain at some point.

What a lot of people are forgetting — present company included — is to find the active voice, i.e. the quote from the person generating the news. A frustration I note, looking back through the years for background for my book, is that in a lot of press gallery reporting (and I’m as guilty as anyone else in the past) I can’t find a quote for history-making events.

But the definition of great journalism, which is essentially looking at the definition of a genuine scoop, that’s a slightly different area of meaning. The scoops that hang in the cultural memory for all time are the ones that are able to navigate all the vested interests. And that is a lot harder. Most of what we do adds only incrementally to the sum of communal knowledge, the really good ones –and they are genuinely few and far between — are the ones able to change the way people view a particular topic or subject matter or person or leadership figure.

Ten by-lines that as a reader I always look out for (in alphabetical order by political and then economic writers):

  • Phillip Coorey: The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Annabel Crabb: ABC Online
  • Malcolm Farr: The Punch
  • Michelle Grattan: The Age
  • Paul Kelly: The Australian
  • Laurie Oakes: Herald Sun Saturday
  • Lenore Taylor: The SMH
  • Laura Tingle: The Australian Financial Review
  • Ross Gittins: The SMH
  • Michael Stutchbury: The Australian

The thing I know the most about is print. With each of these people, even if I know how they feel on certain topics, I don’t know how they vote when I read them. To me that’s the most important thing reading a print journalist. I don’t want to be able to guess having read their first paragraph how the rest of the story will read.

I read a couple of them partly for provocation factor. I don’t necessarily agree with everything either Ross or Michael write, because we economists have pretty firm views but I like reading the ones who think about their subject matter and Ross and Michael are probably the two best in the game.

I know how hard it is to be interesting and entertaining and to assemble the facts in a way that keeps you reading. Each of them, in one way or another tick the boxes of news value, readability (which to me is very important) and analysis or an interesting take on something everyone already has an opinion on.

With Laurie Oakes, people need anchors and that’s why I think a weekly column like his, people will always go back to. You look for Kelly regularly on Saturday and then anytime you see his byline through the week you’ll grab it.

Surprisingly for people who are Canberra focused I’d say the Melbourne bureau of The Australian [is the strongest newsgathering bureau in Australia]. Three of them are Perkin winners — Cameron Stewart, Rowan Callick, Kate Legge — and I’d add another two to the list: John Durie and Ewin Hannan. You normally get a cluster of brilliance like that in a Canberra bureau, but the five of them I’d pit against any bureau in the country. All the things that make quality journalism they have in spades.

TV and radio programs I try not to miss/wish I had more time for:

  1. Fran Kelly: Fran’s energy level probably incomparable in journalism. I don’t think anyone at that time of the morning can be as coherent as she is.
  2. AM: That’s probably the best summary you’ll get in the morning on the radio and it’s not a bad way to start your day whether you are or are not rostered on that day.
  3. 7.30:  I loved and still love Kerry, but am also enjoying Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann. You’ve got to experiment otherwise you end up like with John Howard where you’re running the same guy forever.
  4. 7pm ABC News: It’s the only television news broadcast that still pretends to be a news broadcast. The commercial channels are just not in the game anymore.
  5. Lateline: It gives news junkies one last trip around the block before bed.
  6. Four Corners: It is the only long form journalism on TV that consistently produces exclusive stories. It is the only part of the television news cycle that compels print to follow it.
  7. Media Watch: What to me would be a good Media Watch would be one that spends more time on journalists at my level and less time on the croc attacks in the NT News.
  8. Q&A: The best format of Q&A is ironically the single person panel, where you get a long form interview and interaction with an audience. Perhaps not surprisingly, Julia Gillard’s best media moments have been on Q&A.
  9. Waleed Aly: Anytime Waleed Aly is in front of a microphone. I must declare personal interest: we both follow Richmond. He’s got a unique eye and I like his temperament. His ego never gets in the way when he broadcasts.
  10. The 7PM Project: To me the idea of communicating to people under the age of 40 is an important part of our national discourse. I know that sounds like a corny phrase, but I think it is important. There is always a danger when  you get to that established national affairs end of the national marketplace that you forget there are people 10-20 years younger than you who are. a. probably smarter than you are b. definitely as interested as you are but have not been raised with the same cultural cues you’ve been raised with.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

GM: First thing I switch on to in the morning is Chris Wallace’s It cuts all the corners. Once I’ve done that I’ll check the following websites: ABC, The Australian, SMH, Crikey and The Punch.

I read the hardcopy of at The Australian, The Age and the Financial Review. And the Herald Sun on Saturdays, I’ll pick it up for Laurie and the AFL coverage.

I get The Economist at home. Less likely to listen to radio then I once did. But the thing is now, of course, by the time you get to work, you can listen to these things online. It’s almost knocked out that device for me outside of the automobile.

Each day in the office, I’ll hop onto ABS and Reserve Bank websites to play around with data, I do that every day. Through the course of the day… my blog now gives me a good level of feedback and news tips. It’s an interesting medium. Every year or so I try to flush out the partisanship and toxicity on the blog to keep it fresh.

The one blog that I would check routinely is Nate Silver’s 538 blog, it’s the best of the poll driven sites. I’m very anti polling at the moment because it’s a non-election year. In Australia, except he stopped because he got a day job, Possum Comitatus was and is very good.

For the same reasons that I look at, I keep an eye on Real Clear Politics. I also read everything Maureen Dowd writes and never miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, partly because I like the both of them use English language.

That Monday cluster of current affairs that the ABC has, it’s not a bad cluster, that’s the only time in the lounge room that you’d take your work home with you.

By the time a working journalist gets home, the TV is not going to add that much more. This is where the internet has begun to change habits. You’re in the international publishing cycle by the time you log back on again at night. What would normally be the next morning’s world pages in your own paper, you can start to consume it at about 7 or 8pm the night before. Our heads have been globalised by technology.

I do keep an eye on the BBC website. But that’s more events driven then daily habit. Up until a couple of years ago, the New York Times and Washington Post I would read every day, but now only selectively.

What particular stories do you think are classic examples of quality journalism?

  • Hedley Thomas on Dr Haneef in The Australian: Not just the ability to gather the information but to have the courage to push against a government and a federal police. ASIO didn’t think this prosecution was a good idea, but the AFP did. And the government certainly did. Adding to that pressure was the community sentiment that Dr Haneef would be a difficult person to be barracking for because the government and AFP had already, by their actions, declared him to be a terrorist. Those for most journalists would have been insurmountable because at some point in the story you would begin to doubt your own wisdom in pursuing this thing. The wall of noise Hedley would have had to get through. For him to be able to push this story to what is almost an unexpected outcome. For the degree of difficulty, it’s probably the stand out scoop of the last few years.
  • Speaking in only areas I cover myself, you can’t pass Laurie Oakes’ consistency. The man is a leak magnet. If you take it a decade at a time, he broke the story on the Vince Gair affair, which sent the dominoes falling for the 1974 election. He had an entire budget leaked to him, which embarrassed John Howard as a Treasurer. No doubt with assistance from Paul Keating supporters, he broke the Kirribilli agreement in 1991, which lit the fuse under Bob Hawke. And he also got his hands on the “mean and tricky” memo in 2001, which should have hurt — other things being equal — John Howard but it was Howard’s response to the leaking of that memo that showed to me and I think most people that he had the politics smarts to keep Peter Costello at bay. Now, to be able to define big events in each decade, that to me is a definition of active but not comprised journalism.