Newspapers are haemorrhaging readers, broadcast media is at the vanguard of radical change, governments are probing ethics and ownership, yet good journalism still shines through. And, for that matter, bad journalism.

After awarding the best (and worst) in politics and policy, we present the 2011 Crikeys for Australian media. Drum roll please …

Newspaper of the year

This is a difficult one, with reasons for and against every entrant. The Crikey team would have loved to name a paper flying beneath the national radar — a rural or suburban publication serving its community with distinction, breaking yarns and stirring up trouble. Sadly, although there are many good journos working in such publications, few manage to hit the high spots consistently and well. Many are woeful, cynical adsheets that reflect no glory on the big media companies that own them.

Nor is circulation alone sufficient reason for an award, or this would go to the Herald Sun or The Daily Telegraph. Yet from our point of view both those publications too often resort to sensation rather than substance, although the Herald Sun at its best is a fine tabloid. The Daily Telegraph has gone feral this year under Paul Whittaker, and is disqualified on grounds of frequent ridiculousness. None of the Sunday tabloids have performed with distinction.

So that leaves The Australian Financial Review and the broadsheets. There is a strong case for giving this award to The Australian, because of its commitment to covering national affairs and policy, including areas neglected by other papers. It has often displayed proactive, and correct, news judgment. It devotes resources and space to important matters neglected by other papers. Yet The Oz‘s in many ways excellent record is marred by its nutty campaigns, at times impenetrable news judgment and narcissism, including the inability to tolerate attacks on its large yet essentially fragile ego. As well, there is its bemusing air of martyrdom. Too often, all this weirdness has meant the paper has failed to play a straight bat when it matters in reporting state and national affairs. Its net impact on the nation’s health is such a mixture of dark and light that we can’t give it the award.

The Sydney Morning Herald probably has the best Canberra team in Phillip Coorey, Peter Hartcher and Lenore Taylor, but too much of the rest of its coverage has been pedestrian and trivial, and the feeling of drift from its city continues. The Age’s investigative unit has produced more scoops than any other paper, and in these straitened times that is a significant achievement, reflecting honour both on the reporters and their editors. This year we have also detected an improvement in coverage of the city and the state.

Yet at the same time, where is the space The Age once devoted to essays, think pieces, big issues of policy and the like? And what about the Canberra coverage, the paper’s great weakness, now about to be addressed by a new national managing editor? On a good day The Age is a good paper. On a bad day, you wonder what they are thinking about in news conference.

The AFR, we suspect, may well score this award next year. There are changes afoot, many good new writers poached and signs of a more proactive attitude. But not yet.

So, with all those qualifications and with less than a full heart, this year the award goes to The Age — partly on its merits, but at least as much because of the faults of its competitors.

Broadcast television program of the year

This award is for best consistent performance for a program, rather than for a particular episode, and we are talking about programs that deal with news and current affairs, not talent shows and the like. That means we are dealing, necessarily, with the public broadcasters.

7.30 has not yet made a convincing impact under its new format, though it is improving. Lateline continues to be good, with Tony Jones now the best interviewer on television, but seems to have lost some of its sting this year. Four Corners won a Walkley for the Indonesian abattoirs story, but in between the big scoops there was some pretty pedestrian television. Relatively new entrants such as The Drum had some good moments, but also made us want to bang our heads at times. Foreign Correspondent is a definite contender; consistently interesting and courageous.

SBS, for all its budgetary woes, has strong contenders. The consistent quality achieved by Dateline is a wonder to behold. If the award was for sheer journalistic effort, then this show or Foreign Correspondent would surely get the gong. And, stretching the category, reality television program Go Back To Where You Came From managed to be truly revelatory, and bang on the SBS charter. Given the station is effectively broke, great credit to all concerned.

Continuing to stretch the borders of the category, the Chaser boys hit the nail on the head often in The Hamster Wheel. Sometimes satire does a better job of politics than staged cat-and-mouse games such as the standard political interview.

All in all, it has been a pretty strong year for broadcast news and current events, and it is better because of the preparedness to experiment with formats, and use formulas such as reality television in new ways. We surely need some fresh approaches.

But this award should surely include an element of impact — of making a difference to the national zeitgeist.  For that reason, we are going to give the award to the ABC’s Q&A, which has consistently delivered a fresh perspective on national affairs, proved that pollies can be better when let off the minders’ leash and made real inroads into viewer participation. It has had some wobbly moments and boring weeks, but overall Q&A has  managed to break stories, and alter some of the ways in which politics is conducted and public affairs debated. The award is for the format, rather than the journalistic effort, perhaps. Nevertheless, Q&A has had a modest but real impact in the street and schoolyard where most citizens conduct their political discussions. That gets it the award.

Editor of the year

Hard. Journos tend to be nostalgic for the days of the strong, straight editor. These days if we survey those at the top of our mainstream publications, it seems the strong ones are not straight, and the straight ones are not strong.

We rule out Chris Mitchell at The Australian for the same reasons that paper did not get newspaper of the year. Neither The Age nor The SMH editors are great champions for their products. Indeed, to be a Fairfax editor these days is, it seems, to disappear. Michael Stutchbury deserves honourable mention for creating a bit of buzz around the Financial Review, but the fruits of his labours are not yet ripe. Honourable mention, too, for Gay Alcorn at The Sunday Age for being prepared to take risks with innovative methods of engaging readers, such as the OurSay Climate Change Agenda exercise.

If we slipped down a rank, then Fairfax’s Mark Baker, recently made managing editor (national), would get a mention for his consistent governance of The Age investigative team.

Again, it would be nice to give the award to some barnstorming publish-and-be-damned local editor, flying beneath the radar. We rather like what Des Ryan is doing in Adelaide with the resource starved InDaily online independent (in which Crikey publisher Eric Beecher has an interest). In between the remorseless grind of getting the publication out each day, he has managed to proactively cover the troubles of the workers’ compensation.

And for overcoming all those patronising comments about his age to make a real contribution to national debate while lifting circulation, The Monthly’s Ben Naparstek, who is now to edit Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine, is also a contender.

But the winner of the award this year goes to Naparstek’s colleague — Black Inc’s Chris Feik, who edits the Quarterly Essay series. Not only this year, but consistently over the decade Feik’s editorial judgment has seen the publication of essays that have picked elements of the national mood, enlivened national debate, won literary awards and set the agenda for other editors to follow. It’s quite an achievement for a small indy publisher. And unlike some mainstream media editors, Feik never allows it to be about him. He foregrounds the debate, the writers and the issues, while being front-footed in defence of his publication when that is called for.

Again, it might be said that Feik gets the award because of the faults of other editors at least as much as his own merits. Nevertheless, the merits are real and it is time they were acknowledged.

Commentator of the year

The contenders are clear: Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle, Ross Gittins and Laurie Oakes. Annabel Crabb also deserves honourable mention for managing to make politics entertaining while not (always) abandoning substance. Very hard to choose between the top four but, on balance, for rigorous serious coverage, clearly written with real bite, this award goes to Laura Tingle. She manages to perfectly balance the benefits of experience in the press gallery with the capacity to stand above its more ridiculous excesses to deliver independent and insightful analysis. Read Tingle, and you know what is really going on.

The issue that should have had more coverage

There is, always and sadly seemingly forever, indigenous affairs. Again The Australian deserves honourable mention for never dropping the ball on this one. Other media outlets should be ashamed.

Climate change has had lots of coverage, but arguably never enough, given its implications. The state of tertiary education is largely neglected.

The Qantas dispute, and quite a few other affairs of national significance, were frustratingly covered in that we heard about the conflicts and the controversy, but it was notable that we rarely obtained a clear statement of what the conflict was all actually about. We searched in vain for clear examples of explainer journalism on many issues — stories and web pages that laid out the facts and the background, or in the case of Qantas what the industrial claims actually were.

Other issues that we reckon needed more attention: the dominance of our two main retailers, Coles and Woolworths, and the effect that is having on food security and sustainable farming.

Perhaps the best example of these faults was the coverage of the Murray-Darling basin, together with the whole issue of what constitutes sustainable water use and food security in our nation. Certainly there was significant coverage when the various reports on water use were released, but that tended to focus on the conflict and the controversy. Citizens would have been hard put to understand why those reports had been issued, and where right and wrong lay.

There were some honourable efforts, again chiefly in The Australian and at the ABC, but wouldn’t it be nice to see some comprehensive work done on this issue when it isn’t a matter of farmers burning reports, but rather on the real issues? The fact is that we will see wholesale changes in land use in our nation over the next decade. Yet how many media consumers will understand why?

But for overall neglect by all players, we would nominate local government, planning and rezoning in all of our major cities. Any editor worth his or her salt should be pointing the investigative teams at these issues. Fresh skeletons are in the process of being buried, and anyone with their ear to the ground is hearing it to be so. Yet very few news stories result.

Innovation of the year

There is, of course, WikiLeaks, which changed journalism and governance forever. But although the big stuff happened this year, the innovation behind WikiLeaks is older than that.

So who is innovating in the journalistic form? It’s a topic dear to my heart, and my nominee is also close to me (full declaration below). Indy not-for-profit start-up OurSay, run on enthusiasm and oily rags, has made a real impact with its partnerships with media outlets, including the ABC and Sunday Age. Its model relies on using the capacities of the internet and social media to advance democratic participation. I reckon this is one to watch.

Declaration: I was instrumental in introducing the OurSay team to The Sunday Age, which resulted in the Climate Change Agenda exercise. I am also presently collaborating with OurSay over a large-scale research project at the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

Tomorrow: the 2011 Crikeys for business; Friday: the year’s best in culture and entertainment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey