Hard News by Russell Brown


Good work

Journalism is a competitive trade and its participants are motivated not only by high ideals, but by the scoop and the get and the byline. We're storytellers who use use oddly brutal words about our little treasures -- we want to break them and own them and nail them. (It can be worse: stories that don't get run are referred to as having been "spiked". Ouch.)

In general, that's not a bad thing. The organisations that employ us, and which make up a free press, have a commercial and reputational interest in being first and best and most talked-about. Even if we're just bloggers feasting on bragging rights and page impressions because there's nothing else to be had, we are all motivated to some degree by the prospect of attention and influence.

And yet, sometimes the game leads us astray. We start talking about "taking down" individuals rather than speaking truth to power. We are tempted not only to tell our stories but to become characters in them. Sometimes you can't hear what we're saying for the sound of us beating our chests. Worst of all, we might start telling the public things that aren't the whole story, are half-true, or even not true at all. Other times, we're just dicks to each other on the internet. Endlessly.

But not always. Sometimes people just do good work. I figured I'd round out the media year by acknowledging a couple of people in my trade who fit that description.

One is Radio New Zealand's Auckland correspondent Todd Niall, a journalist I feel I can trust as a listener. Todd, patient, accurate, thoughtful, is the opposite of the media wide boy. He's not only a lovely man, he's a reporter I feel I can trust.

The other is a name you might not know. Alison Mudford is one of a number of good people who have lost their jobs in the course of Bauer Media's acquisition of New Zealand Magazines from APN. If and when the deal goes through, it will end her association with the Listener of more than 30 years.

Where Todd is genial, Alison can be positively -- even notoriously -- bleak. But she's also, I think, the best sub-editor I have worked with. Although it would be rude to name names, I can think of one or two Qantas Awards that really ought to have her name on them, and not that of the winning writer. She's accurate and patient and she must have dealt with so much shitty copy over the years.

But she also has the knack of knowing what not to change. There a few things more irriating as a print journalist than having a mistake introduced in editing. Alison never, that I recall, did that to me.

The Listener, of course, has some heritage there. It's remarkable to think that its subs' bench (not, it's not actually a bench) has been home to the likes of Tom McWilliams, Kevin Ireland and Robin Dudding. I do worry that in this age of consolidation, pooling of resources and sub-hubs, we're losing that. In the case of Fairfax's "right first time" policy, young journalists are in danger of losing the care and attention of subs full stop.

I've never forgotten that when I resigned my Listener column (the last of three I'd done, end-on-end, since 1991), Alison sent me a lovely email thanking me for my copy, saying it had always been clean and a pleasure to edit. Realistically, it can't always have been that clean -- as my crowdsourced proofreaders here know, I may type less accurately than I think. But I'll take the praise. I was talking with a dear friend of mine a little while ago and we discovered that we had both had such letter from Alison. We briefy basked in the shared knowledge of a gold star.

So, in a time when our trade can get pretty shrill, I think it's appropriate to appreciate the people who do their work without bragging, and do it well. Todd and Alison, thanks. Good work.

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