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Oct 12, 2011

The quality journalism project: iconic Ita Buttrose

Is there anything in journalism that Ita Buttrose hasn't done?

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Is there anything in journalism that Ita Buttrose hasn’t done? She was the founding editor of Cleo, editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly and editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph. Buttrose launched her own magazine Ita, has written several books, is a long-time regular on television and radio, was the subject of ABC’s popular Paper Giants series and has even had Cold Chisel pen a song about her. Just this week she was hosing down rumours that she’ll run for lord mayor of Sydney.

But what media does Ita consume?

Buttrose is the latest expert in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, which quizzes Australia’s most interesting journalistic minds to find out what good journalism means to them and where they go to get it. Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus, George MegalogenisMarni CordellTom Switzer and Ashleigh Gillon have all stepped up to the plate — if there’s an expert you’d love to hear from, please let us know.

But now it’s over to media maven — and president of Alzheimer’s Australia — Ita Buttrose…

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

IB: I think quality journalism is something that gives me the facts. I want the facts without prejudice. Obviously well written or well spoken or well filmed. You know a good story when you see one.

I suppose it’s all those years of editing, when a good story crosses your desk you think “oh my God, that’s wonderful”. You can’t put it down, you want to keep reading, the first paragraph grabs your attention.

CRIKEY: Does any particular medium produce the best? You’ve worked across most of them …

IB: I have, across all of them. Each has a different reach. Print can be wonderfully effective. I think television still has an enormous impact, you get the right story on television and it can create a huge impact. Radio is compelling stuff, especially when news is breaking. There was an old hand, Peter Barnett at the ABC, he was a wonderful radio broadcaster, you could see the pictures as he spoke. It’s a real artform to be able to be that kind of a person on radio.

CRIKEY: What sort of skills do you need to be able to do that?

IB: You’ve got to understand the language, a love of words. I think a lot of TV and radio journos don’t necessarily think a ‘love of words’ is important, but I think a love of words and how to use them, how to use them sparing sometimes to make an impact. Which is what you do with good writing in print.

Ita Buttrose’s top 10 sources for quality journalism in Australia

  1. The Australian: I just think it’s the best newspaper going at the moment. Consistently good and well subbed. When you’ve been in the business for a long time you can look at newspaper and magazines and tell what’s wrong with them. It’s your editor’s eye. Sometimes I look at The Herald and I think “good God, doesn’t anyone have a look at what they’re doing with the margins and the sizing, isn’t there anybody looking at these columns?” But with The Australian I can see it is run by people who know newspapers.
  2. The Australian Financial Review: [It] is something you’ve got to look at if you want to be across some of the business issues that are important in Australia. There is information in there that you have to read.
  3. Ross Gittins (Sydney Morning Herald): I always read Ross Gittins. I’ve always thought Ross Gittins was good at what he did.
  4. Janet Hawley (Good Weekend): I think she is one of the best feature writers in the business. I think she’s in a class all of her own. If I see her byline, I will stop and I will read it, I think she is tremendous.
  5. Peter Hartcher (Sydney Morning Herald): He gets to the point. I’m always interested to see what he has to say. I mightn’t always agree with him, but he challenges me.
  6. Paul McGeough: I just feel he understands the Middle East so well. I don’t know that our Middle East coverage is as good as it should be, but he is an expert.
  7. Maralyn Parker (The Daily Telegraph): Education is a very important issue. The Prime Minister is very interested in education. I’ve got grandchildren and their education is important to me. Maralyn Parker seems to understand the issues really well, I think she’s very informed and I don’t think The Telegraph should bury her as much as they do.
  8. ABC News Radio: Particularly Fran Kelly. She’s very versatile, she’s across a lot of things.
  9. Sky News: If I really want the latest news, I go to ABC News Radio and Sky News.
  10. Geraldine Doogue: I just think she’s a consistent performer. Someone said to me once “Geraldine Doogue is ever-questing” and she is ever-questing. She’s a very good radio broadcaster, I really enjoy her on radio, I think she’s very very good.

CRIKEY: What media do you consume on a daily basis? Do you read newspapers every day?

IB: Yes I do, I get them all. I don’t read them as thoroughly as I once did. I do listen to ABC news radio almost every morning and often the story has moved on [from the newspaper].

If I’m driving to meetings in Sydney or something, I listen to the radio. And in Sydney, you can spend a long time sitting in the traffic listening to the radio because the traffic is so appalling, so then I might dial twiddle. I might see what the shock jocks are chatting about. Might go and see what’s happening on the ABC. I got to the ABC for The World. I listen to PM as I’m driving back and forth. I listen to Fran Kelly sometimes. She asks tough questions. She’s very versatile, she’s across a lot of things. She is left leaning, but you take that in to consideration and listen anyway.

I do a lot of research online for my speech topics. I get The New York Times (online) every day, I pay for that now. The New York Times has some of the best health articles I’ve ever read and I’m interested in health so I tend to follow up and look at those. Sometimes I’ll go and look around the English newspapers, but the two I get all the time are The Washington Post and The New York Times.

[Regarding magazines] I certainly read most of the ones that go into the newspapers. I read The Weekly, I read Vanity Fair, I read Hello. And I have a look at all the others, I have a look at OK, I just have a look to see what they’re all up to.

I watch Sky News. I used to always be an ABC news watcher but I changed the night that Sky News followed Kevin Rudd’s assassination and nobody else did. I was so impressed with Sky News … I couldn’t take myself away from it, I was just gripped! And so Sky News is my first port of call for TV news.

I’ll have a look at 7.30. I do miss Kerry O’Brien, I have to say. I felt he was a bit biased, but nonetheless, when he did a good interview, my God he did a good interview. Some of those interviews were just fantastic, usually the offbeat ones … they were just gems. I look at Four Corners. I’ll occasionally look at Media Watch. I watch Australian Story. On Mondays I’m pretty much an ABC watcher. They have a good line-up.

I do watch 60 Minutes on Channel Nine. Sometimes I look at A Current Affair if a story they’ve promoted has caught my eye. I think Tracy does some very good interviews with people. She’s done some memorable interviews.

I’ll pop over to have a look at what George Negus is up to. He’s an old mate, he’s always got an interesting take on life. I like his program, I think it’s really good. People forget, George was an original 60 Minutes member and I was at ACP when that started. That show did not rate instantly, it took a while. But the company was behind it and that’s why it survived. I think the same is true of George’s program at Ten. You can see by the ratings when the big news is happening, George’s ratings go up. People do go there because they know he is a reliable source of news.

CRIKEY: Is there a reluctance to investment long-term in good journalism?

IB: Absolutely, they want miracles overnight. Sometimes you have to let a show settle in and grow, like 60 Minutes for instance.

CRIKEY: What big journalism stories throughout history stick in your mind?

IB: The story that sicks very much in my mind is from a long time ago, when Kennedy was assassinated. I still remember where I was, I was waking up, it was about a month before I got married in 1963. You’ll never forget that story because you couldn’t believe it. When the space shuttle blew up. When Peter Allen died. When Diana died. The bombing of the twin towers. They are all events that stay in your mind. As the story unravels you find them hard to believe but you’ve got to keep watching and listening and reading. They consume you.

CRIKEY: What news outlet do you go to when a big story breaks?

IB: Probably the ABC. If it was radio and news breaking, I’d be on the ABC.

CRIKEY: Do big stories like that make you think journalism is important?

IB: I run into people who say they never watch television and I can’t believe it. I think “how can you be so out of touch?” (laughs) Of course journalism is important.

People forget what journalists do to bring the news to us. When you look at some of those wonderful ABC reporters, especially the women, in the Middle East, reporting from war zones, you think “God, how can they be so brave?”. And you can see they have some sort of protective vest on. It would be quite a frightening assignment. As we know many journalists get killed — not too many Australians, thank God — in the cause of bringing news to the rest of world. Not many people go into combat unarmed, that’s what journalists do. My dad used to boast that all he had when he was in the second World War was his typewriter.

CRIKEY: Why is it important to have good journalism?

IB: You must have good journalism because that’s how we learn about things going on in the world. Without effective journalism we wouldn’t really know what the politicians were doing. We wouldn’t know the important issues of the day. We wouldn’t know what was happening in countries like Libya. They are a source of knowledge. They inform us every day.

And that’s why it’s important that journalists observe the code of ethics [because] when a group of journalists besmirches the profession, like the News of the World did in the United Kingdom, it reflects on all of us. I’m really annoyed about that, because I’m very proud of being a journalist.

CRIKEY: Do you think most Australian journalists hold that code of ethics highly?

IB: I think most of us do. There are always a few rogues, but rogues exist in every enterprise. But I think most journalists are very conscious of the responsibility and we are conscious too of the power that we all have. Because we do have power. You always have to exercise it wisely.

As an editor, I was always very conscious of that responsibility, because when you edit something like the Australian Women’s Weekly when it was a weekly, it went to one in four homes, or when I was running the newspapers here for Rupert in Sydney, [we had] a few million readers every Sunday and during the week.

There is a responsibility to inform, to try and keep bias out, to make sure we’ve respected people’s privacy. All of those things that we are meant to do.

CRIKEY: Do you think that’s still happening?

IB: I think some sections of the media have become a little intrusive. There was a chap the other day whose child was run over by a member of the family. The next thing you know the poor father is on television crying — why wouldn’t he be? — and I’m thinking “do we need to be there?” I don’t think we do. We don’t need to intrude upon people in this way. I think we need to respect people’s privacy more than we do, certainly in those circumstances.

CRIKEY: Do you think there needs to be laws or stricter guidelines about privacy?

IB: It comes from management. All these things come from the top, so the editor or the editor-in-chief really has to set the guidelines. Death seems to have become almost a celebration. Once a upon a time we used to be a bit more respectful when a person had died, now it’s a hoopla.

At the end of the day, the buck stops with the editor. The paper is made up by a whole group of people, but the responsibility for the tone of the paper is the editor’s. There’s no room for a pussy cat when you’re an editor, you’ve got to be brave.

CRIKEY: What did you prefer, being an editor of a newspaper or a magazine?

IB: I preferred being editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly, I must say. It was such a different magazine to what it is now. I’m not saying it’s not a good magazine now or anything, but it was more news orientated. And as it came out every week the turnover in the stories were rapid, you could change the run, you could stop the presses and drop stuff in for Victoria, you could drop stuff in for New South Wales. We had three editions within the one week. Queensland, WA, SA, Northern Territory and Tassie in one run and then we’d add Victoria and then we’d add New South Wales. Each of the states had certain pages that were devoted to their activities. So I could even change the cover in the run if I wanted to. You can’t do that now — it’s more restricted — but we could back then.

People forget just what a mighty magazine The Weekly was. One in four homes, you just couldn’t buy that reach. It was huge. It was a fantastic magazine to run because no one ever said no to us because it was so respected. The women’s media had a wonderful reputation.

CRIKEY: How do you think women’s magazines are going these days?

IB: I think — and I’m not including The Weekly in this criticism — some of the now weekly magazines have trashed their reputation by running stories that are not accurate, that clearly aren’t true. Once you do that and you lose the trust of the reader it’s very hard to get them back. And you couldn’t possibly say that the women’s media is respected in Australia today in the way that it was. Now they are all trying to change their ways a little bit, but you alienate your reader and it’s very hard to get them back. You have to love them all the time. They are the most important things we have: readers and viewers and listeners.

CRIKEY: Do you read Cleo?

IB: No. It’s not the magazine I created. It’s 40 years next year since I created Cleo. It’s changed a lot since I created it, I think it’s not really for my demographic (laughs).

CRIKEY: What do you think about print in Australia right now?

I think there’s some good print and some bad print. (laughs) You do search for the good stories now, where as once you would have had an abundance of them. But I don’t think that is the case now.

CRIKEY: Are you hopeful for the future of print journalism?

IB: I look at texting and the literacy involved and I think “Oh my God, how is the English language faring?” I hope it will survive. When I look at how the apostrophe is murdered by just about everybody who uses it, you think “does anyone teach grammar any more at school?”

CRIKEY: I was never taught grammar at school …

IB: When I see plural verbs used with singular subjects, I’m pretty positive grammar isn’t taught at school! Subeditors are crucial to the production of good newspapers and magazines. When I see an ad in the paper for a sub with three years’ experience, I think “they must be joking”, you should have more than three years’ experience if you want to be a sub.

CRIKEY: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have recently outsourced most of their subs to Pagemasters …

IB: And that’s quite apparent when you read The Sydney Morning Herald. I often see the lede of the story buried in the copy and not up the top of the story where it should be.  A good sub would have picked that up straight away.

CRIKEY: Does that mean the future for Australian newspapers is quite dire, if they’re getting rid of all their subs?

IB: I think they are struggling now. So they are trying to work out where they belong in the niche. You can assume that some newspapers won’t survive but I think some will. But it really depends on what they deliver that we can’t get elsewhere. So you’ve either got to background a story more effectively than you can get on radio or television, you’ve got to give people a reason to pick up the newspaper.

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