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Oct 19, 2011

The quality journalism project: Gawenda, paper man turned digital fan

Michael Gawenda knows journalism both as a practioner and pundit. He's the latest expert in Crikey's quality journalism project.

Michael Gawenda knows journalism as a practioner and pundit. He’s won three Walkleys for best feature writing, served as editor and editor-in-chief of The Age from 1997-2004 and was the inaugural director of The Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne. He remains at the centre as a senior research fellow.

Gawenda also penned a book in 2009 inspired by the daily walks with his dog (and partially based on a Crikey blog) called Rocky and Gawenda: The story of a man and his mutt. There must be something about newspaper editors and books about their dogs, because the new editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, just published one too.

But what newspaper does Gawenda regard as the best?

Gawenda is the latest expert in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, which picks the brains of Australia’s top journalists and editors on their definition of good journalism and where they go to get it. So far we’ve quizzed Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus, George MegalogenisMarni CordellTom SwitzerAshleigh Gillon and Ita Buttrose — if there’s an expert you’d love to hear from, please let us know.

Now it’s over to author, editor and academic Michael Gawenda …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s a bit like you know it when you see it. But I’d say it’s journalism that goes to informing its readership or its viewership about the key issues that are crucial to the proper functioning of a liberal democracy and giving your audience — who are citizens — the information they need to make informed decisions about who will represent them across a range of institutions, from politics to the arts.

Up to now, there have been two main institutions that have produced quality journalism: one is print and the other is the ABC. That is changing. It’s incremental and small at the moment, but there’s an increasing role for quality journalism in online media — online media that is not a version of print online but that is uniquely digital. So what I’m referring to are things like The Huffington Post and non-profit journalism outlets like Pro Publica in the US. There are attempts in Australia to produce other versions of uniquely online journalism that is of a high quality. I think that trend will continue.

I think it’s very important in all this that the journalism has been produced in an ethical way. Now of course “what is ethics and when do you cross the line and when don’t you”, all those things are open for debate. But what I said about quality journalism that you know it when you see it, you also know when ethical boundaries have been crossed when you see it.

Is there something that sets quality journalism apart?

If you look at newspapers, you look at the clarity and quality of the writing, the depth of the research, the fairness of the piece. Not “is it objective?” but is it fair and does it illuminate something that otherwise wouldn’t have been illuminated? News — including commentary, analysis — ought to be uncovering and telling people things that they didn’t know in a way that is unique. I don’t consider quality journalism to be regurgitating press releases.

Do you think the level of quality journalism has dropped in recent years?

I find that a hard judgement to make. There is still a fair amount of quality journalism around. But I do think that if you accept that newspapers were a major source of quality journalism (and the reason for that is the economic model of newspapers could employ very significant numbers of journalists in a way that other media couldn’t) then now that is changing. That means you’re getting much more short-term, quick-turnover journalism and a lot less journalism that takes time, resources and experience.

Michael Gawenda’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia:

  1. The ABC: because I find its journalism fair. I get both good news coverage and comment on AM and PM. Four Corners is still a flagship investigative current affairs program. Fran Kelly is a terrific morning presenter and interviewer.
  2. The Australian: while The Australian is at best quirky and sometimes bizarre, I still think that it is a quality broadsheet newspaper with often outstanding reporting and commentary.
  3. The Age: it regularly has journalism that is compelling and exclusive. I think they have three or four outstanding investigative journalists that do outstanding work.
  4. George Megalogenis (The Australian): his pieces are informed by great reporting. So it’s not just comment or an opinion with which you can agree or disagree, George has gone to the trouble to find things out and tell me something I didn’t know or hadn’t even thought of. And that’s the key to outstanding commentary.
  5. The Quarterly Essay In long-form journalism, The Quarterly Essay is absolutely Australia’s best. Annabel Crabb’s profile of Malcolm Turnbull was fantastic and David Marr’s of Kevin Rudd was another example of absolutely world-class, long-form profile writing.
  6. Herald Sun: the Herald Sun still has absolutely terrific sports coverage. There’s a lot of it, they break stories and they have really good commentators. Mike Sheahan is the best footballer commentator in the business.
  7. Crikey: I read Crikey every day and it increasingly does excellent journalism. Bernard Keane is a must-read. He offers a perspective on federal politics that you don’t get anywhere else.
  8. Alan Kohler and his columns on Business Spectator. He’s a lateral thinker and he writes about business and economics in a unique way. It’s accessible; it’s interesting. Sometimes you think “oh Alan, this is ridiculous”, but you’re never bored and he always make you think.
  9. Michelle Grattan (The Age) is always trustworthy. And when she says something has happened or going to happen or this is what’s going on, I always think Michelle is believable, she’s fair and she’s furiously accurate.
  10. Laurie Oakes: I don’t watch him on commercial television, so I’m talking about reading his columns, which are always punchy, always informative and always fair and accurate.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

First thing, I switch on my laptop and look at my email alerts from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian. I also get email alerts from The Telegraph in London [and] from Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. I think their coverage of the Middle East is very fair. A lot of people think they are left-wing ratbags but I think they’re pretty good.

Then I get email alerts from magazines: The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, all of which are magazines and periodicals I get online editions of anyway. I no longer get paper editions of any of them. I get The New Yorker online as well. In Australia you can’t get The New Yorker app but I get a digital version of the magazine. These are the things I look at before I take my dog for a walk.

I take my dog for a walk and listen to Radio National: Fran for 15 mins before the news at seven o’clock, then AM.  I still have the three Melbourne papers delivered: The Age, Herald Sun and The Australian. Most days I probably spend more time on The Oz than the other two papers, even though in many ways it’s a bizarre newspaper. I think it’s probably now the only broadsheet paper in Australia.

I’ll be honest, I always skim the papers, but there are many mornings I say “I’ll read it later” and I don’t get around to it. I think that tells me something. I’m not a kid but the fact is most of my reading is done online or on my iPad. And increasingly that’s true also of what I listen to and what I watch.  I hardly ever listen to Radio National programs live. I podcast. I hardly ever watch Four Corners live. iView is fantastic and I can watch it whenever I want it. I’m increasingly living in a digital news world. If I’m doing it, what’s a 30-year-old or a 25-year-old doing?

The iPad has made a huge difference; I can watch whatever I want, when I want. The magazines, for instance, look beautiful on the iPad. It’s like reading the magazine except it’s not paper!

Two to three times a week I watch Lateline. I iView 7.30 because then I can flick through it and watch whatever I want to. I don’t think I’ve watched commercial news or the ABC news for a long time. Sometimes if I’m around or driving somewhere, I will listen to The World Today. I don’t listen to Late Night Live at 10pm, but I do podcast those I want to listen too.

I still read The Monthly, which I think is pretty good. I certainly hope it survives. And I get Quarterly Essay.

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

  • The Washington Post did a series on the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington. It was a long investigation, but they basically uncovered a scandal in terms of the way the hospital was run and in terms of how it treated veterans. I thought it was a fabulous piece of quality journalism, where the reporters were given time and space to tell what clearly was an important story. And it wasn’t just that it was important, it was done in the most compelling way.
  • I think The Australian pursued the Mohamed Haneef case with determination and vigour and it was an important story.
  • Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie at The Age’s pursuit of the currency company Securency. The Age has pursued that story for at least two years and no one else has followed it up. I thought it was dogged and important reporting. I know a lot of people in journalism thought that they were obsessed with it, that it’s a bit boring, but I think it was an important story.
  • Four Corners has done good work, you just have to look back to the abattoir story (A Bloody Business) and the consequences of that. I know that Four Corners got the footage from the animal welfare groups but it must have taken ages to organise that and to stay with the story. And again, Four Corners was able to devote time and resources to that sort of story and the impact was really important.
  • The UK politicians expenses scandal. While some of that information would have come to them as leaks, they still had to stay on the story and they had to work on it and have reporters on it. With all these sorts of stories, they take time and you never know whether you’re actually going to get the story. So you have to be a news organisations that has the resources that can leave reporters on a story that might cost you in terms of salary — $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 dollars in Australian terms — and you may not get a story. But I think that the expense scandal is a perfect example of a newspaper story that I fear may not be done all that often in the future.

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