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Editors pick biggest stories of 2016

Donald Trump, the 7-Eleven wage scandal, Dreamworld tragedy and the Australian federal election are some of biggest stories of 2016 selected by newspaper editors. They have shared their favourite front pages and top performing stories as part of an end-of-year editorial special by NewsMediaWorks. Participants of the survey: Paul Whittaker – The Australian Alex Lavelle...

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Donald Trump, the 7-Eleven wage scandal, Dreamworld tragedy and the Australian federal election are some of biggest stories of 2016 selected by newspaper editors.

They have shared their favourite front pages and top performing stories as part of an end-of-year editorial special by NewsMediaWorks.

Participants of the survey:

  • Paul Whittaker – The Australian
  • Alex Lavelle – The Age
  • Bryce Johns – Australian Regional Media
  • Lachlan Heywood – The Courier-Mail
  • Stuart Washington – The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Christopher Dore – The Daily Telegraph
  • Mark Baker – Launceston Examiner/Burnie Advocate
  • Kate de Brito – news.com.au
  • Heath Harrison, editor, The Herald, Newcastle; and
  • Grant Newton, editor, The Canberra Times

Their individual responses are below.

Overall, Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election dominated responses with The Australian’s editor-in-chief, Paul Whittaker, describing it as “the biggest news story in the world, and it will be for years to come”.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s managing editor, Stuart Washington, said Trump’s victory “exposed a deeply divided United States . . . and a mainstream media attempting to come to terms with the terms ‘post-truth’, ‘post-fact’ and ‘fake news’.

Other editors highlighted the impact of their own journalism.

The Age’s Alex Lavelle noted Adele’s Ferguson’s investigation into wage fraud by 7-Eleven prompted the convenience store chain to pay back $59 million in unpaid wages to workers.

Bryce Johns, editorial director of Australian Regional Media, said the Fair Go for Regional Australia campaign, run in conjunction with News Corp, had “led to millions of dollars being committed to major regional projects”.

Other editors pointed to significant stories in their own region.

Mark Baker, group managing director of Fairfax Tasmania which has charge of the Burnie Advocate and Launceston Examiner, said droughts, fires and floods dominated the state’s news.


Biggest stories of 2016

Paul Whittaker, editor-in-chief – The Australian

Donald Trump’s shock US presidential election victory was my favourite front page of the year.

Along with the British Brexit poll result edition, it showed how Australians trust us when they want to know the story behind the biggest stories in the world and in our region.

We had record print and digital audience increases as people turned to us to make sense of what was happening in Britain and the US.

Trump’s win was the biggest news story in the world, and it will be for years to come, which is why I recently took the decision to re-open our Washington Bureau in early 2017 after appointing one of our most experienced senior journalists, Cameron Stewart, as The Australian’s Washington Correspondent.

The Thursday, November 10 edition of The Australian recording Trump’s triumph also delivered The Australian

A +15.9% lift in net sales to 110,483,

Volume growth of +15.1k copies over the base, well ahead of our estimated +6.5k increase and Brexit uplift of +10k copies.

The sales growth for the Trump election victory edition was bigger than the 2016 Federal Budget, Brexit, last year’s Liberal leadership spill or any other story or promotion for the last two years.

The sales in the two days after Trump’s election created a sales uplifts of +5.9% on Friday (103,797) and +3.1% on Saturday (228,214)

Alex Lavelle, editor – The Age

This year featured several innovative projects and a series of major investigations exposing corruption in the banking industry and big business.

7-Eleven has paid back $59m (so far) in unpaid wages to workers thanks to the work of Adele Ferguson and Sarah Dankhert, while stories on the CommInsure scandal and the underpayment of Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s workers due to union pay deals won a total of three Walkley awards.

Our Unaoil series started with Nick McKenzie placing a fake ad in a French newspaper and finished up exposing one of the world’s biggest bribery scandals.

Julia Medew’s Big Sleep project about a couple who ended their lives in a suicide pact has had more that 1.2m views. And our six-part podcast Phoebe’s Fall, about the short life and brutal death of Phoebe Handsjuk, has had 800,000 downloads and topped the iTunes charts.”

Bryce Johns, editorial director – Australian Regional Media

1.) Trump election win

It has thrown so many things into doubt I don’t think we’ll appreciate the way the world has changed for some months.

It’s going to be a dangerous, fascinating, scary ride and the media will doubtless enjoy it. It has to put Australian-US relations under the microscope and after the media’s failure to connect with heartland America through the campaign, there are warning signs for our media too. For instance, many in the media are quite liberal, but the attitudes of many readers, on issues like immigration, are extremely conservative.

How do those leaders provide engaging material for those whose beliefs they may hold in disdain? In this day and age, you alienate readers at your peril. It needs careful thought.

2.) The Fair Go campaign run by News Corp and ARM papers through the federal election campaign.

It was the first time the plight of millions of Australians has been so comprehensively exposed. Regional Australians score worse than their city counterparts in nearly every area. They live shorter lives, are poorer, less healthy, less educated.

Our campaign led to millions of dollars being committed to major regional projects, from a new stadium for Townsville, a virtually new hospital for Tweed, a multi-storey car park for the inadequately served Rockhampton Hospital. But that’s just the start.

Neither of the two main parties has coherently explained how they intend closing the gaps for regional Australians. And with ARM and News Corp on the verge of a wedding, you can expect the pressure to ramp up. Why shouldn’t the regions get a Fair Go?

The best front pages from ARM papers include Gladstone’s The Observer, which had great use of a CCTV pic that many editors would have under-played because of its low quality. But that’s what made it here, a menacing/grainy shot enhanced by the heading.

There was also fantastic technical skill out of the Gympie Times to fade all of the colour out of the pic of a dead young girl in a tribute piece, apart from the vibrant dress she was wearing.


Lachlan Heywood, editor – The Courier-Mail

Best story: It is hard to go past the Dreamworld tragedy. It really had a deep impact on our readers, who found it difficult to comprehend how four people could be killed on this seemingly innocuous ride – especially as many had travelled on the ride themselves.

The parent company’s response in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was an absolute public relations disaster.

Best cover/front page: I chose one of several we did on the Gable Tostee trial, which captivated not only Queensland but the nation. I like this front because the final words of Warriena Wright before her fall from the balcony – recorded by Tostee on his mobile phone – are just so powerful when put down in print.

Stuart Washington, managing editor – The Sydney Morning Herald

The year had two electoral hinges that provided the biggest surprises and stories.

1.) The federal election:

Before the federal election in July, the Herald correctly called – despite almost all commentators’ views of a comfortable win for the Coalition – that the race was too close to call. Its polling published on the front page on the Friday before the election offered the headline “Cliffhanger” – as it turned out to be.

The seismic change in the political landscape – not least the election of four One Nation Senators – was something that drove some of the Herald’s most-read stories: 607,000 page impressions on 2016: Federal Election 2016 day one coverage: Election too close to call as voters walk away from Malcolm Turnbull.

2.) The US election

The changes and debate about the changes prompted by the results of the federal election were supercharged by the results of the US election. The Sydney Morning Herald had three correspondents in the United States – Paul McGeough, Nick O’Malley and Josephine Tovey – to interpret the Trump campaign and what it might mean for the US and in turn Australia.

The result exposed a deeply divided United States, with resurgent climate change skepticism, anger about its economic status, outward anger at its rivals and a mainstream media attempting to come to terms with the terms “post truth”, “post fact” and “fake news”.

1.17 million page impressions were recorded on our live coverage page US Election 2016 Live: polls and results for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

3.) What it means to be Australian.

A major theme arising from both of these stories was what it means to be Australian – something that the Herald has and will continue to cover in all its forms.

Christopher Dore, editor – The Daily Telegraph

Best front page of the year:

'Will Trump Flourish', Christopher Dore's favourite front page of 2016.
‘Will Trump Flourish’, Christopher Dore’s favourite front page of 2016.

The cover that definitely had the biggest impact, went all around the world, was being sold at a premium to collectors on Ebay, and certainly captured a sense of amazement in Australia, and I guess around the world, was the day after Trump was elected president.

Best / most impactful story of 2016:

We had great success with a couple of long term investigations at The Telegraph this year. Nick Tabakoff won the scoop of the year at the Walkleys for uncovering the Parramatta Eels salary cap scandal, which had an incredible impact on the NRL season, and has really changed to course of the game.

Story most proud of:

We decided to campaign against the decision by the Baird Government to, without consultation, shut down the greyhound industry. Most Australians were pretty appalled and disgusted by evidence of animal cruelty, however clearly the Australian fair-go gene is as strong as ever, because everyday people couldn’t cop the unfairness of killing off an industry without even trying to properly clean it up.

The Telegraph took a very measured approach to the coverage, telling lots of stories about ordinary families with greyhounds over several weeks, before eventually editorialising strongly in favour of overturning the ban.

In that sense I am proud of the way we went about it. We weren’t hysterical about it, our coverage was methodical and real, and ultimately effective. 

Best story of the year (The Daily Telegraph aside):

Well interestingly the Walkleys board didn’t think there was a best story of the year, awarding the gold to a photograph, so who could question them?

We had two stories, the Eels investigation, and an investigation into the treatment of children in foster care in the scoop of the year category, so I find it hard to go past them. However in terms of incredible yarns, the year was dominated by two elections, that seemed to go on forever, both producing remarkable results and incredible stories.

Biggest industry change of 2016:

Despite a continuing proliferation of plagiarism and content-stealing, Australians are clearly showing they  are prepared to pay for quality journalism in all its guises – on digital platforms and in print.

Prediction for the industry in 2017:

Real news fights back


Mark Baker, group managing editor – Fairfax Tasmania

The federal election was certainly a big story, particularly in Tasmania where three sitting Liberal MHRs got wiped out. The self-styled “Three Amigos” of Brett Whiteley, Andrew Nikolic and Eric Hutchinson all lost their seats, leaving the Coalition with no Tasmanian MPs in the Lower House.

Drought, fires and floods dominated Tasmania’s news. The year began with an energy crisis caused by record low rainfalls and the failure of the Basslink cable that connects the state to the national energy grid.

Things were looking pretty dire at the start of the year with dam levels at record lows. The state government was forced to bring in expensive diesel generators and the major industrials reduced their power usage to help with the crisis.

Lightning strikes caused hundreds of fires in Tasmania’s World Heritage Areas before record rainfall caused widespread flood damage in June. Sadly, three people died in floodwaters, hundreds of livestock were killed and more than $100 million in damage was caused. The effects are still felt by many smaller communities in Tasmania.


Kate de Brito, editor-in-chief – News.com.au

It’s no surprise that in a year marked by one of the biggest election upsets in recent history our readers were focused on politics.

Readers flocked to news.com.au on July 2 for a live results blog for the federal election. No-one expected the battle between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten to be so close, and readers were hungry for an up-to-the-minute count. It was our highest rating story of the year. 

The second and third most popular stories centred on what has easily been the biggest talking point – the Trump/Clinton US election.

Readers and pundits were blindsided by the result. Both stories ran on news.com.au on the day of the US election, covering the build-up and then a rolling coverage of the dramatic election results. 

Heath Harrison, editor – Newcastle Herald

If you’re one of the 600 families living in Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove, you cannot drink the water, grow fruit or vegetables or let your kids play in the dirt.

These small communities north of Newcastle are the neighbours of the Williamtown RAAF Base. Toxic chemicals used in firefighting foams on the base have contaminated ground and surface in a surrounding area, now known as the ‘red zone’.

The Newcastle Herald revealed the spreading scale of what was becoming a scandal around the country – the health fears of families; the financial hardship of commercial fishers suddenly stripped of their livelihoods; and the failures of those authorities charged with protecting the environment and community.

In the Foam and the Fury series, we presented the stories of the people affected by the crisis. Those people include the parents who don’t know what’s in their children’s blood; the families facing financial calamity over plummeting property values; and the multiple generations in the grip of the accompanying mental health fallout.

The investigation revealed major banks had imposed lending restrictions on properties in the red zone, leaving hundreds of people stranded, their homes effectively worthless.

After a year and literally hundreds of reports, The Herald has helped end a deafening silence. Prior to the federal election both major parties pledged multi-million dollar packages addressing the scandal, while metropolitan media outlets started reporting on the issue.

Both major parties promised to make blood testing available for affected residents, and this has now begun. They also promised to increase mental health services, and commission epidemiological studies into the health effects of the contamination.

The Defence Minister visited the area for the first time to meet with affected residents, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now says the government will consider property buybacks for affected residents.

The Herald won the Walkley Award for community and regional affairs for the Foam and the Fury series.

Grant Newton, editor – The Canberra Times

Nothing commands the attention of Canberrans more than an election.

With more than half the working population employed (directly or indirectly) by government, the outcome of a federal election can have a direct and lasting impact on people’s lives. 2016 was a rare year in politics, with a Federal, ACT and US election falling within five months.

Coverage of the three elections attracted record audience and engagement figures for canberratimes.com.au.

On the weekend of the ACT election, the site received a record daily average of 123,000 domestic UBs and 608,000 domestic PIs. Engagement on the election live blog, the most viewed article of 2016, averaged close to six minutes. 

For more news from NewsMediaWorks, click here.

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