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Sep 21, 2011

The quality journalism project: the battle for New Matilda

Can quality journalism and reporting work online? Is it sustainable? Both questions make this week's quality journalism expert, Marni Cordell from New Matilda, particularly relevant.

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One of the terms of reference in the recently-announced media inquiry states it will examine: “The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment.”

Can quality journalism and reporting work online? Is it sustainable? Both questions make this week’s quality journalism expert, Marni Cordell from New Matilda, particularly relevant.

New Matilda is an independent news and analysis site that’s been running since 2004, covering Australian and international politics and current affairs. Last year Crikey broke the news that it was to close after funding and advertising dried up. Then, after a “Save New Matilda” campaign, editor — and now publisher — Cordell re-launched the site, which publishes regulars like Ben Eltham and Ben Pobjie.

But New Matilda is on the brink of financial collapse again, with a subscriber drive currently underway until the end of the month. They currently have just over 600 paid up subscribers and they need 1500 by the end of next week if they are to keep publishing. Head here if you want to help save them; it’s only a couple of bucks a week for a subscription.

So what does someone producing independent media in Australia consider to be the best?

Crikey‘s quality journalism project quizzes the top editors and journalists in the nation for how they define quality journalism and where they go to get it. So far we’ve had luminaries including Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus and George Megalogenis. And we’re still taking suggestions for nominations (and yes, we’re listening; Megalogenis, Colvin and Cordell were all nominations and stand by for Tim Burrowes from mUmbrella and Tom Switzer from The Spectator in coming weeks) so please tell us your top picks.

But now over to editor and publisher of New Matilda Marni Cordell…

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

MC: I actually think the quality journalism debate needs to shift its focus and start talking more explicitly about investigative journalism. “Quality journalism” is such a subjective term and I agree with Alan Kohler when he wrote here on Crikey a couple of years ago:

“Most of what is called quality journalism is not quality at all  – it is leaks planted by vested interests, to journalists who need to stay onside with those interests (politicians, sports administrators, business people, etc) …”

The relationship between daily news reporters and those in positions of power is close by necessity — it’s the daily reporter’s job to report what is happening inside parliament, big business, etc — and more often than not the daily news reporter accepts statements from these official sources as true, or if not true then at least as newsworthy.

On the other hand, investigative journalism operates outside of this framework. Its role is to test claims made by those in positions of power. I think this is an important distinction to make.

In the United States there is a strong culture of this kind of journalism, and a number of independent investigative newsrooms have popped up across the country, joining the bigger independent outfits such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting. These non-profit centers produce investigative journalism away from the constraints of a media business and sell it on to the other media.

Here in Australia it is much harder to get these kind of start-ups off the ground — New Matilda is one of the only crowd-funded media outlets in the country, and we do a lot on a very small budget. Plus, I think the culture of investigative journalism just hasn’t taken off here like it has over there.

When we think of investigative journalism we usually think about the Watergate kind, involving a big leak from a powerful source. We also think it takes a long time and lots of money to produce — and this is often the excuse used by the bigger media outlets for not producing more of it.

But I think the definition of investigative journalism is much broader than that. Drawing new connections between information that is already in the public domain, scouring databases and presenting info in ways that is accessible for a general audience — all of these things, in my mind, constitute investigative journalism.

And it actually costs very little to produce. It’s this kind of journalism that I think we need more of in Australia.

Marni Cordell’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia:

They are not really in order because I couldn’t choose a number one. I like them all for different reasons. Some of the journalists I admire are not necessarily Australian — but most of them have covered stories that have had an impact here.

  • East Timorese journalist Jose Belo: runs the news website Tempo Semanal and regularly breaks stories that are then picked up by the Australian media. Here’s one example.
  • Dorothy Wickham: started her own news channel in the Solomon Islands and played a critical watchdog role during the early years of RAMSI.
  • Sean Dorney: knows everything there is to know about the Pacific.
  • Mark Davis: pioneered the whole video-journalism thing, but more than that has broken important stories about West Papua and East Timor, including this one on Chinese military influence in Dili.
  • Wendy Bacon and the Australian Centre for Independent Reporting at UTS: I’ve long been a fan of Wendy’s work and ACIJ is important because it’s encouraging student journalists to do investigative journalism (including a series of investigative stories on coal seam gas that we’ve been running in New Matilda).
  • Four Corners: Not everything they produce is investigative but when they do it they do it very well. Sarah Ferguson’s work stands out.
  • SBS’s Dateline: The show has lost its teeth in recent years and doesn’t always produce the kind of critical international coverage that it did back in the day — but it still has a couple of great journalists.
  • PM: Has done some fantastic coverage recently on the Middle East, largely due to the local contacts made by producer Jess Hill through social media.
  • Crikey: Proves that it’s possible to break stories on a budget.
  • ABC TV’s Hungry Beast: They did a couple of strong stories that asked questions that the other media weren’t asking like this one on the “Gang of 49“.

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

MC: I flick between Fran and ABC News Radio in the morning. If I’m working from home I will leave Radio National on and tune into the Law Report or Health Report. I’m actually a bit obsessed with the Law Report! I love a good legal explainer.

When I clock on I check out The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and ABC Online and also whatever people are talking about on Facebook and Twitter. I look at the top stories on Slate, Salon, Mother Jones, The Guardian and sometimes The Huffington Post. I skim The Daily Telegraph and The Australian Financial Review while getting coffee. We used to have office subscriptions to the papers but these days we are on a serious budget!

I have the news sites open throughout the day and usually hear about breaking events directly through friends/contacts or from social media. I read the Crikey email after lunch.

As an editor I obviously also read a lot of commissioned and unsolicited content — the best of which ends up on the NM website.

At night-time … I’m usually still online. If I’m home early enough I will listen to PM, if not I usually check out what they’ve covered online. I don’t own a television — I have an Eye TV dongle that I plug into my laptop but I find I am doing this less and less. These days I watch 7.30 about twice a week. I used to do the Monday night ABC TV marathon, but now I tend to only do that if there is something really good on Four Corners. More often than not I will get the gist of what these shows are covering from social media, and then check out the shows/transcripts online.

SBS news lost me when they went to the hour-long format and dumped Mary Kostakidis. I’ll often tune in to ABC News Radio if I want a quick news fix at night. I boycott Four Corners and Dateline when they are running buy-ins from overseas — what a waste of taxpayers’ money!

On weekends I do more in-depth reading — Harpers, Overland, the weekend papers and anything that has been recommended to me during the week.

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

  • Bronwyn Adcock’s 2003 report for DatelineInside Nauru: Pacific Despair was a great example of what the show used to do best: an undercover investigative report by a solo reporter with a camera. It’s also a great time to revisit that story in light of the offshore processing debate that’s currently going on in Canberra — if only to prove that Nauru was not a “solution”, either.
  • Mark Schapiro’s investigation for the Center for Investigative Reporting on carbon sinks, which we republished on New Matilda, was an early example of the pitfalls of the international carbon economy.
  • John Martinkus’s book A Dirty Little War, on Indonesia’s occupation of — and murderous withdrawal from — East Timor is an oldie but a goodie. Martinkus hasn’t been given enough credit for the work he has done as a reporter from Australia’s war zones — he went on to report from Iraq and Afghanistan after Timor. He was publicly undermined by Alexander Downer after he was kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq in 2004, and has since become a journalism academic, but I think he should be more widely recognised as a journalist who did not merely accept the official version of events.
  • Jon Lee Anderson’s book The Fall of Baghdad is another great example of an inconvenient account of war. He stayed in Baghdad reporting for The New Yorker as Bagdad fell in 2003 and directly contradicted official military accounts with his eyewitness reports.

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