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The stories that made a difference in 2021

Impact is a hard thing to measure. What impact did Age journalism have this year? What difference did we make? I view journalism as a public service, so did we serve our community – especially our subscribers – well?

Impact can be an individual thing. An investigation that exposes wrong-doing. An opinion article that encourages someone to think differently. A photograph or video that moves. A cartoon that skewers the pompous. A data dive where you can find out what is relevant to you. An Explainer that for the first time makes you understand a complex issue. A recipe you discover that becomes a favourite.

For the second year in a row, we have published The Age’s Impact Report, laying out in one place the best of our work this year, and the consequences of our journalism. I would say this, but I am intensely proud of Age journalism this year, and of all our staff who – once again – published a daily website and newspaper almost entirely from home. In The Age’s 167-year history, 2021 and last year will be remembered as a remarkable period for Melbourne and Australia, a time we won’t forget.

It has been our privilege to chronicle the first draft of that history. The Age is the most authoritative and best-read masthead in the state, with a reputation for fairness and for publishing a diversity of views on the most complex and intriguing issues of our times.

I had lunch with our health team recently – Aisha Dow, Melissa Cunningham and Timna Jacks – and they said they could not imagine a better time to be health journalists because the issues matter to people and the responsibility to be fair and accurate has never been greater. As science reporter Liam Mannix writes in the Impact Report: “All along, we stayed sceptical and focused on the evidence. We resisted the temptation to be populist or panicked.”

There are little things that have an impact every day, and the big things that expose corruption, reveal systemic wrongs and lead to change in the public interest. This is difficult, time-consuming, expensive journalism and I know of no other media organisation doing it better and with more rigour than The Age.

The Age’s commitment to investigative journalism is long-standing. Nick McKenzie, the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year, spent months researching the far-right in Australia, and his reporting in The Age and on 60 Minutes was groundbreaking. This type of journalism takes courage. “It has not been an easy reporting task,” Nick writes. “Since publication, the reporters involved have received threats. My photo has been circulated in extremist chat rooms with a noose above my head, and I have been viciously trolled for my Jewish heritage.”

Age investigations into Australian casino companies Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment have led to sweeping changes to Australia’s gaming sector. Despite intense resistance, this year our work was vindicated by the Bergin inquiry in NSW and the Finkelstein royal commission in Victoria. These inquiries would not have happened without The Age.

Adele Ferguson’s investigation into the cosmetic surgery industry – a joint investigation with the ABC’s Four Corners – exposed alarming practices in a poorly regulated industry in which any doctor can call themselves a “cosmetic surgeon”. Its impact was immediate, with Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt referring the allegations for urgent investigation, and the Victorian government launching an investigation into cosmetic surgeon Daniel Lanzer. By the end of the week, the Medical Board of Australia had accepted an undertaking from Dr Lanzer that he would not practise as a medical practitioner in Australia.

There were many more investigations that had consequences, and do read about them in the Report. Nobody has looked as hard at the politicisation of Victoria’s public service as chief reporter Chip Le Grand, Paul Sakkal and Timna Jacks. Without doubt, The Age set the agenda on state political reporting. We exposed the stretched hospital and ambulance system for months, culminating in a recent Nick McKenzie piece about Nick Panagiotopoulos, who waited about 25 minutes before someone picked up his triple-zero call. By the time it was answered, it was too late.

One of our goals this year was to campaign for integrity in our political system, without which our democracy is weakened. It was too late for the Impact Report, but this week Shane Wright and Katina Curtis produced extraordinary stories about the misuse of public funds. They reported that system of grants had become so politicised that Coalition-held seats around the country received more than $1.9 billion over three years while Labor electorates got just under $530 million.

Locally, our journalism about systemic branch stacking led to an IBAC inquiry into alleged misuse of public funds within the state Labor party.

One of The Age’s shortcomings in recent years has been the lack of sustained reporting on Indigenous issues. We have begun to address that, and this year appointed Indigenous Affairs journalist Jack Latimore. We launched our own “truth telling” series, to complement Victoria’s Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, the first truth telling body in Australia set up to share and record stories about the impact of colonisation on Indigenous Victorians.

Tony Wright‘s features on life before colonisation, and life after, were eye-opening for most Victorians. For the first time, we reported on The Age’s own history of reporting on Indigenous issues, with former Age editor Michael Gawenda concluding that too often, our stories have been paternalistic, even racist, and until recently failed to highlight Indigenous writers telling their own stories.

These stories didn’t lead to inquiries, but they had an impact nonetheless. They mattered, and we will be doing more on it next year.

These are landmark things. But we also innovated in other ways. We launched our daily news blog to keep readers up to date with breaking news. We launched News with the Age audio bulletins, so you can listen to Age headlines any time from your home smart device. We are investing in new podcasts. We are recruiting 23 staff across the country in areas from social media to graphics. We are in the process of hiring five new trainees.

For me, impact can be a lovely piece by Carolyn Webb after designer Carla Zampatti died. It was about Melbourne grandmother Yvonne Dite, who bought a Zampatti shift dress in 1967 and who received a phone call from Zampatti in 2019 to confirm that it was, indeed, one of her early designs. I still remember that story.

It can be a piece by Nyadol Nyuon that gave me an insight into what racism feels like – I have never experienced it.

It was a Please Explain podcast episode with Jack Latimore that taught me so much about Indigenous languages and the fight to keep them alive.

It can be an Adam Liaw recipe that we now make every week at our house – you’re welcome.

None of this would be possible without our subscribers. Our mission is that The Age is a masthead you think is good enough to support, one that is steeped in Melbourne and curious about the nation and the world.

As proud as I am about 2021, The Age will be better next year. There are subject areas we don’t do as well as we’d like. There are topics we do too superficially, that deserve greater depth. We need younger people writing opinions and grappling with the issues of our times.

All of this relies on support from our subscribers. If you value what we do, if some of it had an impact on your life or thinking this year, please consider giving a subscription as a Christmas gift. Could there be a better present in an era of fake news, polarisation, angry social media, than the gift of quality journalism that digs deep and enjoys life, too? A masthead that calls Melbourne home. I am not great at the hard sell, but it’s a thought …

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor here.

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