“You want to be known for doing good journalism and not just what I call ‘commodity news’,” says Mr Savage, who won the prestigious Hegarty Scholarship at the 2015 Newspaper of the Year Awards.
“You need to be able to do great work which attracts readers, and not just for big numbers but for engagement time and giving people something that they can really delve into.”
Mr Savage’s own investigative journalism has seen him expose secret links between political donations and government decisions, force police to reinvestigate an infamous, 40-year-old murder case, and even led to the resignation of Maurice Williamson as a New Zealand minister last year.
While Mr Savage always had a passion for reading, writing and meeting people, journalism was something he fell into by chance.
“I was failing miserably in my calculus class in high school and wanted out. The only other class available in that time slot was then journalism class.”
From there, Mr Savage helped revive his high school’s newspaper, Tauranga Boys College’s Hillsdene Reflector, which had fallen into neglect at the time.
After studying journalism at the Auckland University of Technology, he began reporting for local Fairfax Media newspapers in 2004 before slowly rising up the ranks at Herald on Sunday and New Zealand Herald.
Along the way he picked up both Best Crime Reporter and Senior Reporter of the Year at the Canon Media Awards in 2010 and then again in 2015.
His best-known investigation saw Maurice Williamson resign as Minister for Customs, Building and Construction, Statistics, and Land Information after it was revealed he called a senior police officer in relation to domestic violence charges that had been filed against one of his political donors.
While Mr Savage is proud of the work put into that investigation, he says he doesn’t take any joy in causing distress to people.
“You never set out to destroy or damage peoples’ career or reputations for the sole purpose of doing that. You’re doing it because that’s your job and there’s questions to be asked.”
“You never set out to destroy or damage peoples’ career or reputations for the sole purpose of doing that. You’re doing it because that’s your job and there’s questions to be asked. And I guess when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really realise the significance of it.”
At a managerial level, Mr Savage worked to establish data-journalism practices at the New Zealand Herald, although he says the credit should really go to the people he recruited for the job.
To ensure the Herald was at the forefront of data journalism in New Zealand, Mr Savage first contacted Keith Ng, a freelance data journalist who would often blog about and be critical of basic statistical errors made by the mainstream media.
Mr Ng has since done some freelance investigations for the Herald but he also recommended several good data journalists, including Harkanwal Singh who now works at the Herald.
“All I can take credit for is getting (Singh) here really … He’s fantastic at what he does. He’s driven a lot of change in the newsroom.”
The Hegarty Scholarship is awarded to the most outstanding young news publishing executive and includes $10,000 to be used for a study tour of the recipient’s choosing.
Mr Savage plans to use the scholarship to attend the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference held next June in New Orleans and visit both start-ups and big US newsrooms, with The Washington Post and The New York Times at the top of his wish list.
While the study tour should give Mr Savage some new ideas to bring back to the New Zealand Herald newsroom, he is quite clear about the importance of investigative journalism.
“Investigative journalism is crucial. It always has been and hopefully always will be.”
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