It was (another) year of job losses at Fairfax and self-aggrandisement at News Corp. The ABC to some extent had change forced upon it, and to another extent chose change for itself, over the protests of many of its staff. Aunty lost some big names and bigger talents in 2014 — some have ended up on Sky, while others have been lost to their viewers.

The TV networks had a bad year for ratings. It seems people will only watch TV for news, sports and live events. Momentously, Channel Seven and Nine have mostly killed the 6.30 current affairs program — a previous mainstay of their evening programming. There was plenty of off-camera drama, especially at Seven, which sued a former producer to try to stop his book from being published, and had one of its leading executive producers leave  his high-profile job after a punch-up with an underling. Channel Ten struggled to survive, spending much of the year in painful limbo over a rumoured sale. The job losses at Channel Ten, and just about everywhere else in the legacy media, have continued.

But it hasn’t been all bad. This was the year the colonialists came into their own. BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and the Daily Mail all cemented their operations. One needs only to look over their coverage in the past few days to see all three have become news-breaking forces to be reckoned with. And home-grown digital media hasn’t had a bad year either. Here at Crikey our business editor got a scoop many have hailed as among our best ever, while New Matilda narrowly escaped closure and went on to publish a series of nation-shaking exclusives that, love them or hate them, certainly afflicted the powerful.

So, here goes nothing. The 2014 Crikeys present the year in media.

Newspaper of the year. How long can we continue to give out this award? Who knows, but this year, we ain’t giving it to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, despite a steady series of scoops and a much-respected willingness to fight the power in the courts if necessary. The Fairfax metros have simply lost too many quality writers, and those who’ve replaced them are yet to command the clout of their predecessors. And the Age and SMH share so much copy these days it can be hard to tell them apart. That’s a pity, because they’re under greater pressure than ever. The Guardian website targets a similar demographic, while The Saturday Paper has steadily improved since its March launch and provides some competition to the Fairfax metros’ weekend editions. It’s all good news for readers, but it makes it hard to differentiate which paper really stood out.

The Australian turned 50 this year and has continued to do what it does best: single-mindedly pursue a target until it gets a scalp or its campaign quietly fizzles out. And the tabloids are, well, the tabloids. The News Corp ones have the same copy-sharing problem the Fairfax metros have. The Courier-Mail’s been running a great series on press freedom, and we do love its covers. Perhaps they’re why its circulation hasn’t done too badly, relatively speaking. Speaking of covers, the NT News has carved out what we’re sure is a profitable business selling its own in fridge magnet form. And the Daily Telegraph, well, let’s just say it doesn’t need us to sing its praises. It got Sydney a second airport, after all …

But what paper do we in the Crikey bunker really dig this year? While this is all about as rigorous as a Bob Katter analogy, we’ve really been loving the Australian Financial Review. The paper provided ace Canberra coverage from Laura Tingle and Phil Coorey, the LuxLeaks investigations by Neil Chenoweth (along with everything else he writes), the light yet occasionally caustic touch of Joe Aston and Will Glasgow in Rear Window, Chanticleer’s daily analysis by Mike Smith and Tony Boyd (complete with pitch-perfect smack-downs for sources who led them astray), and a host of solid business writers at the top of their game. One never fails to learn something when reading the Fin.

Of course, there are things about the Fin we hate. Like its rather predictable anti-union agenda, and its unbalanced and shrill divestment coverage this year. We won’t count the paper’s publication of Mark Latham against it. More on that later.

Most crazy-brave editor. But why should the newspapers get all the glory? It takes a certain measure of spunk to run a digital outlet, and we really have to acknowledge the tremendous risks taken by New Matilda‘s new owner and editor, Chris Graham. The website’s investigation into Frances Abbott’s secret scholarship exposed how power and access makes everything just a little bit easier, while the investigation into Barry Spurr raised serious questions about the calibre of person giving advice to the government. Both scoops had their critics, of course, and the publication’s Nova Peris stories did a lot to upset its base. But Graham hasn’t let that dissuade him. He plans to publish more on the controversial Nova Peris emails in 2015. Any attempt to do so could land him back in court. Australia’s privacy laws could well be redefined through the actions of the plucky group of individuals who comprise New Matilda’s core staff.

Most over-wrought analogy. More people on the disability pension than died in the world wars? Give us a break. The Daily Telegraph re-heated the angle earlier this year, and was roundly and deservedly criticised for crimes against statistics and the disabled. The Press Council would eventually rule against the coverage. Here’s hoping we don’t see it again.

Backdown of the year. This could never go to a Murdoch paper — God knows they don’t back down. Occasionally they apologise, as The Courier-Mail did over that “monster chef and the she-male” cover. But that doesn’t really qualify for this.

No, only two events could possible be contender for backdown of the year. The first is ABC managing director Mark Scott’s belated and frankly bizarre decision to apologise for that Chaser skit depicting Chris Kenny photoshopped onto a dog. Scott’s backdown came months after the event. It also came with no seeming preconditions. Kenny was suing the ABC at the time, and the Australian Communications and Media Authority was investigating the incident. The regulator would eventually offer a striking rebuke of the ABC, while Kenny went home with a settlement. But it’s not clear if Scott’s apology made anything better. He was criticised on the one hand for delaying it, and on the other for pre-empting the legal processes surrounding it. It did nothing to assuage his critics and left the ABC’s friends puzzled.

But nothing could beat the way Fairfax fired columnist Mike Carlton. The columnist has always been rather impatient with critics, especially online, and the uproar over one of his columns about the Gaza war meant he had more than usual to deal with. He responded by swearing at and criticising some of those who emailed him. This was assembled into a file and given to the Oz and the SMH, whose editor decided Carlton needed to be disciplined and made to apologise.

But that wasn’t enough. The next morning, Carlton told Crikey at the time, SMH editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir was overruled by editorial director Sean Aylmer, who said Carlton needed to be suspended. Carlton responded by resigning.

It was no orderly exit. Carlton left throwing bombs on the way out. Many readers and commentators misunderstood the situation, believing he’d been sacked for his sceptical position on Israeli policy, despite Fairfax’s frequent denials to the contrary. Later reports suggested Fairfax had been looking for a way to replace Carlton — it quickly filled his spot with John Birmingham after he left. But regardless, it was an unnecessarily bitter end, and one that handed a prized scalp to the paper’s biggest critics. And if it was meant to appease those who thought the paper was anti-Semitic, it didn’t work. Just last week, Attorney-General George Brandis was in Parliament saying the paper had fired Carlton for his anti-Semitism. Carlton, who has a Jewish son-in-law, says he’d sue if he could. But the greatest reputation damage was Fairfax’s.

Interviewer of the year. Sky News’ David Speers got the network’s first Walkley for his “what is metadata” interview with George Brandis. He deserved it. But Crikey was holding out for Sarah Ferguson. Recently she said she didn’t think any Australian interviewer could get away with being as aggressive as the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman. But Ferguson in 2014 brought a new level of aggression to interviewing during her stint on 7.30, and it was warmly appreciated. “Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” she asked Hockey after the budget lockup. A question for the ages …

The Crikey good behaviour award. It’s important to reward media figures who’ve shown much-improved behaviour. And so we tip our hats to Kyle Sandilands, who has not been a huge shit this year. He and accomplice Jackie O have nonetheless finished the year atop the FM breakfast ratings, beating out ARN stablemates Amanda Keller and Brendan Jones in what is nothing less than a stellar result for their parent company. Go figure.

The Crikey shit-stirrer of the year award. Meanwhile, former Labor leader Mark Latham appears to have taken on Sandilands’ job. He began by having a go at easy targets like Oz media editor Sharri Markson, but as the year went on he began to offend feminists and right-thinking people the country over with his sloppily researched rants against several feminist writers and their alleged lack of child-rearing skills in the Australian Financial Review. It didn’t escape our attention that unlike almost all its commentary, the Fin let Latham’s rants slip outside its paywall. All the better to offend with we suppose. All outlets have their shit-stirrers but Latham’s pieces had exactly the desired reaction. They were read by thousands and prompted all sorts of counter-commentary. It even prompted many of the women personally criticised by Latham with no chance to respond to start a petition urging the AFR to stop publishing him. Crikey slammed the petition at the time as “stupid”.

Columnist of the year. Mark Latham.

Just kidding. Strictly speaking he’s a feature writer and not a columnist, but there’s something very personal about Martin McKenzie-Murray’s writing that means we can shoehorn him into this category anyway. McKenzie-Murray has been a columnist with Fairfax in the past, but as the Saturday Paper’s chief reporter, he’s better than he’s ever been. His writing this year has been unmissable for its earnestness, its probing nature, its compassion and its calm authority. More please.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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