Sunday, April 10, 2011

Resting on their quality laurels. The Melbourne media scene is pretty small, and for reasons of continued patronage I should be careful about how pointed my criticism is. However, recently I've been pondering the ways that we determine 'quality' in a newspaper, and how oddly contradictory the perceptions of quality in the Melbourne news media continue to be.

These aren't new preoccupations for me. As far back as 2005 I discussed the absurdity of knee-jerk anti-News Ltd sentiment, which I still observe among my politically progressive peers. The News of the World phone hacking scandal has certainly confirmed a certain evilness in Rupert Murdoch's media empire, but it's still endlessly frustrating to see people imagine the Herald Sun to be staffed solely by cynical Liberal-voting panderers to the lowest common denominator.

In particular, the recent transferral of Melbourne International Comedy Festival media sponsorship from The Age to the Herald Sun has led to a certain amount of snobbery about the discernment of Herald Sun reviewers. A Twitter account has sprung up to ridicule the lamest moments from the Hez's MICF coverage, and I've also heard mutterings to this effect in the bars and on social networks among comedians and journos.

Having worked at HWT Towers in 2007-8, I know that Herald Sun journalists are just as committed as Age journalists to principles of journalistic 'quality'. Or conversely, the two mastheads are equally likely to shamelessly chase cheap pageviews, to publish tendentious, demagogic op-eds, to commission vapid, lazily researched trend pieces and to be full of subeditorial errors.

I believe in pointing crap journalism out wherever I find it. That said, there is definitely an argument to be made that The Age has slipped in quality over the last few years. Fairfax decision-makers are resting on their laurels – those being their history and their tradition of conferring cultural capital – while they're being caught short by all sorts of industry developments.

While Fairfax op-eds continue to be talking points, they're really losing ground to the more active commentary sites by News and the ABC. And Antony Catalano's masterstroke of real-estate advertising thievery, The Weekly Review, boasts some pretty decent writers whose coverage of culture and entertainment rivals that of The Age.

As I've previously argued, quarantining discussions of journalistic 'quality' to public-trust news, and concomitantly redefining 'lifestyle' as inconsequential pap, has had a deleterious effect on the journalistic standards in these sections of the paper. The kinds of fawning celebrity profiles that used to be confined to my favourite intellectual journal Sunday Life are now creeping into Good Weekend and A2 – sorry, Life & Style. Meanwhile, M likes to trumpet supposedly zeitgeisty trends that everyone has already known about for years.

But what really galvanised this blog post was a very thoughtful feature about Brendan Fevola in the Herald Sun. Oh no! you might think. A footy story in the Hez – how insightful could that possibly be? Very, if it's written by Andrew Rule. In February this year, Rule defected from The Age to the Herald Sun, and what's interesting about his professional history, and that of his longtime collaborator John Silvester, is that they've worked for both papers, and never defined their commitment to journalism by the masthead they write under.

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