Defeating judge dread to see a better future

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August 15, 2018

Martin Wright, editor of the Express & Star, receives the Newspaper of the Year (Daily) trophy from headline sponsor Bobby Singh

Having ‘jumped over the fence’ from journalism to PR not so long ago – turning from poacher to gamekeeper, as it were – there are some things which I can no longer enjoy.

The black banter of the reporters, the thrill of a big news story breaking, the instant hit of an online tale going viral – these are all rarefied perks of life behind the newsroom curtain.

Another is the time-honoured tradition/laborious chore of entering journalism awards. Once, this involved a lot of cutting out and glue, thick black card and entry forms carefully written in triplicate. These days – in one of the few digital advances that has unequivocally improved the lives of journalists – awards entries are all uploaded online in the blink of an eye. Hallelujah.

As a self-confessed award floozy, I have to admit I miss it. But in my shiny new PR trousers, this is a party to which I am no longer invited. Or so I thought. Turns out I’ve jumped another fence – from entrant to judge.

Last week saw the annual Midlands Media Awards. Organised at Villa Park by Birmingham Press Club – the oldest press club in the world, I’ll have you know – it’s a massive event covering all kinds of media across a huge swathe of the UK.

I’ve been to this suitably boozy celebration of journalism many times as an entrant, but this was my first time as a judge, having run my eye over two categories: Team of the Year and the all-important Daily and Sunday Newspaper of the Year.

I had a certain amount of reticence when it came to the job at hand. I love newspapers, but the world of newsprint has never been so challenged. Resources are limited. The online beast requires constant feeding.

I feared that when I looked at the region’s best newspapers I wouldn’t be able to ignore the homogenisation created by copy sharing, multi-tasking teams, corporate consolidation and design dictats. Suddenly, judging the industry that shaped me didn’t seem so appealing. Judge dread.

I needn’t have worried. The five brilliant newspapers that vied for the title stood proudly individual, the very definition of diversity in print. There was the Sunday Mercury, full of impact, humanity and emotion, the print equivalent of a strong coffee on a Sunday morning. Its sister title, the ballsy Birmingham Mail, landed massive stories with a big-city swagger. The Sentinel, a newspaper dripping in character, carried the unique voice of the Potteries with colourful yet considered design. Even the Express and Star and its stablemate the Shropshire Star, both nominated, struck different tones – like brothers who had taken different paths.

In the end, following the byzantine processes of judgement (the scores were counted) the Express and Star was anointed, a fitting winner in a fantastic field.

In the face of incredible pressure to cut corners, share copy, take the easy path and standardise, the great newspapers of England’s Midlands have refused to become one big homogenised newsprint blob. How?

The answer came when I judged my second category – Team of the Year. The newsprint entries here – often written by editors and senior execs – revealed passionate teams still proudly embedded in their communities and willing to go the extra mile to please readers.

The winner was the Birmingham Mail and BirminghamLive’s celebration of Aston Villa’s promotion to the Premiere League. It was staggeringly good, from the superb stand-alone ‘Back Where We Belong’ publication to the clever, comical videos that went viral across the Second City as Villa fans celebrated.

As I took off my metaphorical judge’s wig (I definitely didn’t buy one just for the job) the message was clear. As long as our newspapers are put together by passionate teams, led by editors of vision, they will retain the individuality that readers require, regardless of economic pressures.