We’ve handed out the gongs for politics and business, now to the people and publications who reported on it. In a tumultuous year, we present the shining lights from the fourth estate — and those who need to lift their game …

Newspaper of the year: Herald Sun

With brutal cost-cutting and plummeting circulation wherever you look, no newspaper stood out as the obvious winner. The Daily Telegraph ruled itself out with its at times hysterical election coverage attributing earth-shattering importance — An unhappy make-up artist! Albo’s beers with Craig Thomson! — to relatively trivial events. According to the ABC Media Watch team, the Tele ran 134 anti-Labor stories during the campaign and only five that were anti-Coalition. The Tele can protest it was reflecting public opinion, but the paper’s status as the least trusted newspaper in the country speaks for itself.

Brisbane’s Courier-Mail did well holding the Newman government accountable through most of the year — a vital task in a big, one-newspaper city. The jury, though, is still out on new editor Chris Dore. The paper is more lively under his watch but some efforts — such as the ban on mentioning English cricketer Stuart Broad’s name — seemed a desperate grab for attention. Adelaide’s The Advertiser and The West Australian didn’t rise to brilliance.

Neither The Age nor The Sydney Morning Herald is winning this year — despite the papers’ important scoops on the Essendon supplements saga, alleged bribery at Leighton Holdings and Eddie Obeid’s murky influence. Some days the newly compact SMH and Age were brilliant; on others they felt under-cooked and anaemic.

The Australian Financial Review has shed some of its biggest names in recent weeks and, like its Fairfax stablemates, was erratic on weekdays. But with Phil Coorey, Laura Tingle and Geoff Kitney, the AFR has arguably the best Canberra bureau in the country. AFR Weekend stood out for its arts and culture section and is the go-to paper for high-quality long reads such as Pam Williams’ famed “tick tocks”.

With its comprehensive, well-resourced coverage of national politics, indigenous affairs and business, The Australian should have been a shoo-in for this award. But the paper misses out for muddying genuine scoops with agenda-driven beat-ups — see its coverage of the ABC. And the paper’s reporting on climate policy was too reliant on fringe sceptics.

The award this year, with some reservation, goes to the Herald Sun. Once you go beyond its cover, the Hun‘s news pages are often thin and overflowing with cute animal yarns. But the paper remains the biggest-selling in the country by consistently dishing up the crime and footy scoops its readers expect. Its election campaign coverage was not feral like the Tele‘s and its Ted Bailleu tapes splash helped bring down a premier. The opinion pages have variety and vigour, its weekend features are strong and it campaigned on important issues such as domestic violence.

Columnist of the year: Katharine Murphy

There was no shortage of strong contenders in this category, where the key to success is being lively, informative and unpredictable. David Penberthy continues to deliver well-written populism while never becoming nasty or overblown like some of his News Corp counterparts. Peter van Onselen scores points for taking on both sides with gusto — even if he sometimes veers towards the self-important and self-referential. The AFR‘s Joe Aston regularly broke news in his Rear Window gossip column and amused readers by taking on his fellow hacks — including his Fairfax colleagues.

Fairfax’s BusinessDay team — including Ross Gittins, Adele Ferguson, Elizabeth Knight and Michael Pascoe — helped readers make sense of the big business stories with informed but never fawning commentary. The Age‘s Caroline Wilson was a must-read on the Essendon saga, even if you disagreed with her crusading stance.

But the gong goes to The Guardian‘s deputy political editor Katharine Murphy. Unshackled from word limits and weekly newspaper deadlines, the former Fairfax scribe shone this year. While others in Canberra churned out endless leadership speculation, Murphy went her own way with thoughtful, beautifully written pieces. The former Age scribe also gets points for pioneering live blogging and eschewing journalistic hubris by engaging with readers on social media and in comments sections.

Worst columnist of the year: Chris Kenny

No, it’s not Andrew Bolt. While many readers despise his views, Bolt is the Right’s most effective communicator. By contrast, Piers Akerman looked like a goose for decrying the “weirdly feminist” Peppa Pig and Gerard Henderson never got the blood pumping with his columns. If only Hendo would unleash the wry humour and cheekiness he shows in Media Watch Dog.

The Australian‘s Chris Kenny is a former senior staffer to Alexander Downer and Malcolm Turnbull, but instead of insider insights he seems to reheat a predictable attack on the “love media” every other week. Slogans may make for effective political campaigning, but not great column writing. C’mon Chris, show us a bit more variety in 2014!

Television show of the year: Foreign Correspondent

We’re interested in news and current affairs here so — rather depressingly — the ABC dominates. Under the leadership of executive producer Sally Neighbour, 7.30 consistently broke big stories and covered the issues that matter. Leigh Sales has cemented herself as the top interviewer in the country while young reporters Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Connor Duffy delivered big scoops on footy scandals and the environment.

Four Corners didn’t have as much impact as past years, while Q&A too often got bogged down in political point-scoring. The best episodes were those that went on the road or ditched the pollies in favour of writers, thinkers and experts. SBS’s Insight delivered more depth by homing in on fascinating issues like sex addiction, death and growing up Aboriginal in Alice Springs. It’s a show that deserves a bigger audience.

Channel Ten’s The Project is a commercial standout for making politics accessible to younger viewers who would never watch Lateline. The hosts are looking to inform and entertain, not score gotchas.

Foreign Correspondent wins for a cracking year of episodes that brought the world into our lounge rooms and combined impact with storytelling. The highlight, of course, were the “Prisoner X” scoop exposing how an Australian Jew’s decision to become an Israeli spy cost him his life.

Under-reported issue of the year: the aged care crisis

Disability policy, which has been scandalously ignored by politicians and journalists for years, finally got its time in the sun thanks to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. While the politics of the Gonski education reforms were well-covered, there was a crying need for more explanatory journalism explaining how the reforms would work, what they would change and what they wouldn’t, and what other countries are doing to lift their educational standards.

Then there was domestic violence. Intimate partner violence is the top-ranking cause of preventable and premature death among women aged 15 to 44 yet — with some exceptions — the issue gets little coverage. Could the concentration of men in senior editorial positions explain the omission?

Our top pick is the looming long-run crisis for aged care. How should we fund it? What should quality aged care look like? Both politicians and the media appear to have put it in the too-hard basket. That has to change.

Biggest fall from grace: Kim Williams

For much of the year, Channel Nine’s Today seemed to be soaring under executive producer Neil Breen, formerly editor of The Sunday Telegraph. The ratings went up and a spooked Sunrise swapped Melissa Doyle for Samantha Armytage. But Breeny pissed off some of the on-air team and, inexplicably, antagonised News Corp. By November he had stepped down and shifted into sports reporting.

While staying strong in the ratings, Ray Hadley also had a shocker: he lost a big defamation case, is still in court over bullying allegations and has been forced to offload some of his holiday properties.

None could rival Kim Williams however. The News Corp Australia CEO was forced out in August after losing a power struggle with key editors and pushing cost-cutting too far for Rupert Murdoch. Will Kim be vindicated by history?

Innovation of the year: ABC Vote Compass

This year saw the belated arrival of fact-checking in Australia with PolitiFact and the ABC’s fact check unit leading the way. If this led just one politician to rethink twisting the truth, it was well worth it. But, without a viable business model, PolitiFact is all but dead and the ABC’s unit is causing less of a stir post election. Fairfax, meanwhile, scored some major scoops by encouraging readers to pore over politicians’ expense claims. Hopefully, crowdsourcing becomes a norm rather than an innovation in 2014. Too many journos, pining for the days when readers were merely passive consumers of information, still dismiss it as outsourcing

The winner, though, is the ABC’s terrific Vote Compass — a major initiative that allowed voters to explore how their policy preferences lined up with those of the major parties. It could have been a disaster for the ABC but 1.2 million Aussies used the tool, which delivered a fascinating and useful pool of data.

Peter Fray

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