Walkleys by the numbers – Fairfax’s worst two years in 23 years

Fairfax Media is on its worst run of Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism in 23 years while News Corp is on its best run since 2002. Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes examines the data.

A while back, I was chatting to Hal Crawford, at the time editor-in-chief of NineMSN, about infograms and data journalism.

Rather memorably, he described interactive charts as “a great way to hide work”.

Having just spent more time than I intended crunching the data to create the graph below, I understand what he means.

Via the Walkley Winners’ Archive, I examined every winner since the awards began in 1956.

I wanted to test a couple of perceptions: 1) That Fairfax Media’s journalistic output is fading as resources are cut; and 2) That News Corp has been unfairly denied over the years.

My data chase was inspired by my attendance at the Walkley Awards in Brisbane on Friday night.

As has become our habit, we invited a number of local creative, media and PR agency bigwigs to join us. People of that background don’t often come to the Walkleys, and are more used to creative industry awards.

As a veteran of both types of award ceremonies, the major difference is that despite any reputation to the contrary, journalists are far better behaved and more respectful of their peers than their colleagues on the other side of the church-state divide.

And as is usually the case when I bring agency types to the Walkleys, they were blown away and inspired by seeing so much great work, much of which they’d missed at the time.

If more of the public could have been in the room to hear about the work and people being recognised, I don’t think journalism would have half of the reputation problem it suffers from. Here were – as there are every year – a bunch of people who only work that hard because they’re driven by something more meaningful than simply doing a day job.

Andrew Quilty, a regular winner, won big again for his photographic work in Afghanistan, humanising the stories of innocent victims of war. He won the Gold Walkley.

The late Rebecca Wilson was recognised in the journalistic leadership category.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s jaw-dropping ABC Four Corners interview with Kathy Jackson and Michael Lawler won interview of the year.


And the joint Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation into the shitty behaviour of CommInsure won for investigative journalism.

Plus, it was the year where podcast journalism came of age in Australia with The Australian’s Bowraville investigation.

In the room, it felt like a vintage year. (And as a journalist, a time to feel both proud of the profession and jealous of others’ talents.)

Yet it also feels like confirmation that a balance has shifted.

The chart above begins in 1978, after the broadcast categories were added to the Walkleys. (For clarity, where an award was shared by two parties – for instance a joint ABC and Fairfax Media investigation, I allocated an award to each in the count, rather than half each.)


And, as you’ll see, for most of the history of the Walkley Awards, the competition has been dominated by Fairfax titles, with most of those trophies going to the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.


Since the mid 1980s, the ABC has been a major presence in the awards, with recognition in both TV and radio.

News Corp

And since the mid 1990s, News Corp has been a growing presence, thanks not just to The Australian, but also its tabloid titles. Plus last month’s acquisition of Sky News – winner of the award for best coverage of a major event for its 2016 election work – adds to the source of Walkleys for News Corp.

Over the years there’s also been a consistent presence from other outlets – an award or two most recent years for SBS, Nine and Seven West Media for instance. A regular showing for The Monthly too. And over the last three years, The Guardian has been represented.

But it remains a three-horse race.

And this is where the number don’t lie.

Until last year, Fairfax Media was usually the ultimate winner of the big three, and the only publisher to pick up 12 trophies in four separate years.

And indeed until last year, Fairfax had never been third of the three. Now it’s been third twice running.

And News Corp titles had only topped the Walkleys count once before – in 2001.

Famously, News Corp launched its own internal News Awards about a decade ago, in reaction to what the organisation felt was the unfair overlooking of some of its work by broadsheet-aligned jurors. It won just five awards in 2006 and 2008 and six in 2007. It dropped back to five again in 2013 and 2014.

On Friday night, the ABC and News Corp both picked up eight trophies each, ahead of Fairfax’s six.

Another way to tell the story is to use your mouse (assuming you’re on a desktop) to hover over the coloured button on the graph for each publisher, which isolates their own chart.

As you’ll see, in number of awards won, Fairfax was consistent, until its big drop in wins a year ago.

The last time it did this badly two years running was 23 years ago, in 1992 and 1993.

News Corp and the ABC, meanwhile, both show a continued rise.

The thing is, The Walkley Awards really mean something. The cliché about just being shortlisted being an honour is true.

And winning one comes through publishers investing an amount of resources that makes no direct commercial sense.

Journalists who win these awards will have worked for weeks or months on their story while their peers will have cranked out 10 times as much output in the same time.

And the Walkleys are one of the most reliable ways to benchmark this hidden hard work.

So “only” winning six Walkleys still means a major investment that’s hard to justify to shareholders.

For Fairfax, six Walkleys is a reliable sign it is still investing in journalism. But it’s also sadly a reliable sign of the publisher’s declining ability to continue that investment at the same level.

Two years could of course just be a statistical blip, but it makes the coming 12 months all the more important.

Three times will be a trend.

  • Update: I invited Fairfax to comment. A spokesman said: “Our journalists are amongst the best in the world. This year’s Walkey winners – Adele, Ben, Royce, Nick, Adrian, David and the team at the Newcastle Herald – join our many other journos recognised over the last two years through numerous awards and accolades. The depth and quality of our journalism, and the positive impact it has in the communities we serve, is as strong as ever.”

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