These annual prizes for excellence in journalism, created in 1956, are the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. They were the brainchild of Sir William Gaston Walkley (1896–1976), a dynamic business executive and founder of the Ampol Petroleum Company. Described by the Melbourne Age as a ‘friend to journalism’, Walkley liked journalists, appreciated their support for his oil-exploration efforts and wanted to recognise their achievements in a practical way, and to improve journalistic standards.
Australian news proprietors, hostile as a rule to outsiders meddling in the press, initially refused to participate. Yet while Walkley funded and personally presented the prizes each year until 1976, they were administered by the Australian Journalists’ Association (now the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, or MEAA), and his company’s brand name was kept out of the proceedings. His final goodwill gesture was a $10,000 bequest to perpetuate the awards. Alongside many high-profile corporate sponsors, most major Australian media organisations are now Walkley partners, including News Corp Australia, which introduced its own in-house annual News Awards from 2005.
The Gold Walkley is the highest award, chosen each year from other category winners. It was introduced in 1979 at the same time as the original five categories of prizes for print journalism were expanded to include radio and television news and current affairs. All-media categories were added in 1997 for specialist areas such as business, sport, social equity and investigative journalism. Following a review in 2008–09, these expanded to include online journalism, continuous coverage of a story and scoop of the year. By 2011, there were 34 categories covering print, wire service, broadcast and online journalism, photography, artwork, cartoons, headlines, long-form journalism and journalism leadership. While national and metro daily newspapers, and the ABC, dominate the Gold Walkleys, commercial television journalists from the Nine Network have taken the top prize three times in the past decade. Cartoonist Ron Tandberg holds the record for winning the most Walkleys (10) and is the only person to have won two Gold Walkleys.
The awards are sometimes dismissed by critics as a self-congratulatory exercise. The MEAA’s 1997 review addressed three persistent complaints—closed-shop entry requirements, bias in favour of ‘worthy’ stories, and inconsistent judging—by changing the eligibility rules to include all journalists (not just union members), widening the range of award categories and creating the Walkley Foundation as an independent administrator. Publication of judging criteria and rules, as well as the judges’ comments, has increased transparency. More than 100 senior industry figures participate in judging over 1300 submissions each year.
Recent major prizewinners include Joanne McCarthy, Caroline Jones, Gerard Ryle, Steve Pennells, Peter Cave, Sarah Ferguson, Paul Lockyer and WikiLeaks. In 2002, Julie Nimmo became the first Indigenous journalist to win a Walkley and, in the same year, Ghassan Nakhoul won the first Walkley awarded for journalism in a language other than English.
While there is little doubt that the Walkleys succeed in their aim of rewarding journalistic achievement each year, Sir William’s other goal of improving journalistic standards is more complex and fraught. First, the awards are a comparatively weak incentive to uphold high journalistic standards, given other measures of achievement. Commercial radio and television only rarely win prizes for high-quality journalism but remain the most popular and profitable news and current affairs sources. The digital revolution poses a second, related dilemma: are current journalism standards still relevant? Investigative journalism wins more Gold Walkleys than any other all-media category, and has long been the ‘gold standard’ of professional excellence because of its impact and public benefit. Yet, as digital journalism requires different skills, from multimedia storytelling to moderating public contributions, journalism standards need to evolve. While the Walkley Foundation is mindful of the need to embrace the digital future—the 2011 prize for most outstanding contribution to journalism went to the 485 war reporting open-access, citizen media site WikiLeaks—the awards have yet to fully recognise digital media expertise and provide a variety of good examples of online journalism for others to emulate. Important changes followed a major review of the awards in 2013: the competition was opened up to bloggers for the first time, gave new classifications (text, audio and audio-visual) to traditional platform categories (print, radio and television) and introduced a new all-media award for boundary-pushing, multi-platform storytelling.
The Alliance Magazine was renamed the Walkley Magazine in 1996, and the Walkley Foundation hosts a year-round professional development program for journalists and media professionals.
REFs: J. Hurst, The Walkley Awards (1988); http:// www.walkleys.com.
PENNY O’DONNELL and DAVID McKNIGHT