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Regional Press Awards 2024: What the judges said

The Regional Press Awards for 2024 were handed out today in a ceremony at Quaglinos in London.

The Belfast Telegraph emerged as the big winner with no fewer than eight awards – including a hat-trick of indvidual prizes for journalist Sam McBride who joined the paper from rival title the News Letter in 2021.

Judging took place before Christmas with winners were chosen by a series of panels made up of industry experts including current and former editors.

Here’s what they had to say about the winning entries.

Abi WhistanceYoung Journalist of the Year: Abi Whistance, Mill Media Co

A young journalist with real promise, Abi Whistance, pictured, has delivered thought-provoking investigations covering Merseyside for regional start-up Mill Media. In a two-month-long project, she revealed a food delivery app had received £700,000 of public money despite concerns about its business model, and asked why hard-pressed local authorities (in this case, Liverpool City Region) keep investing public money in unproven schemes.

A separate investigation looked at why several headless sharks had washed up on local beaches. Whistance went undercover, discovering vigilante fishermen on the Wirral who fight the use of gill nets, vertical panels of netting designed to maximise catches. Fishermen pointed the finger at so-called ‘netsmen’ – accusing them of immoral fishing practices and endangering wildlife – but Whistance maintained a critical eye, uncovering a more complicated truth: a rivalry between anglers and netsmen which went as far back as the 1970s with rumours of armed confrontations, as well as the issue of commercial bycatch, the capture of non-target species during fishing.

The judges commended her strong range of submissions, which took straightforward stories and gave them real depth. This was exemplified by an article on the ownership of graffiti, which examined what happened to five famous Banksy artworks that were removed from Merseyside over a decade, unpicking a complex web of property sales and failed projects.

Charles Thomson 1Crime & Investigative Reporter of the Year: Charles Thomson, Newsquest

A decade after Jason Moore was convicted of murder, Charles Thomson’s ceaseless reinvestigation revealed potential police misconduct. Over two years, Thomson, left, scoured paperwork and spoke to witnesses and experts, tracking down the only eyewitness to identify Moore as the killer – the witness admitted he had been drunk and wasn’t sure he had named the right person. His findings are being used to challenge the verdict, and led to protests outside Downing Street and the High Court.

Equally impactful was Thomson’s piece about a serving police officer, ‘Aaron’, whom Thomson helped feel secure enough to discuss his abuse at the hands of Roger Moody – a well-known left-wing activist who had died in 2022. Thomson proved Moody continually secured jobs with children, despite being a proud paedophile, having spent weeks corroborating Aaron’s testimony. In the wake of Thomson’s report, dozens more victims approached the Islington Survivors Network.

A willingness to spend considerable time corroborating details and hunting out vital clues is what marks Thomson out as an exceptional reporter. Indeed, judges said he is “both a tenacious investigative reporter and an excellent all-rounder”. In one investigation, he revealed that staff at a school in Newham allegedly walked out of their jobs after they were accused of trying to “turn children gay”, with subsequently appeasing the complainants. Nobody would talk but Thomson worked tirelessly and won an Information Commissioner appeal which revealed the school had been bombarded with abusive, menacing emails accusing staff of “grooming” children.

Conor Gogarty 2Specialist Journalist of the Year: Conor Gogarty, WalesOnline

WalesOnline’s Conor Gogarty, left, is a brilliant investigative reporter whose stories have a real-world impact. In his damning investigation into an exodus of vital part-time staff at the South Wales fire service, Gogarty covered a recent fire in Treharris during which the nearest seven on-call stations had no crews available, resulting in a delayed response and the destruction of a home. The story was discussed in the Welsh Parliament, sparking calls to address the service’s retention crisis.

Another piece with significant impact was Gogarty’s undercover investigation as a door-to-door sales rep wearing a hidden camera. He exposed misleading job adverts, lies told on doorsteps, and cult-like treatment of young representatives – as well as revealing that he earned £35 on a 12-hour shift. The charity client reviewed its donations, prompting a regulatory investigation.

Gogarty’s accompanying documentary was watched 1.6 million times on TikTok. Regional Press Awards judges praised his eagle eye for spotting a story, particularly in this undercover expose which resonated with its target audience on different platforms. His excellent use of social media also allowed him to find former employees of a recently closed restaurant, Park House. In-depth interviews, along with an examination of court records and company accounts, brought to light a range of serious allegations including a toxic working culture, tax discrepancies and unpaid debt.

Sam McBrideFeature Writer of the Year: Sam McBride, Belfast Telegraph

From uncovering shocking pollution in the largest lake in the country to seminal interviews with political and public figures, Sam McBride, left, is a compelling feature writer with “great breadth and depth of coverage” in his work, according to Regional Press Awards judges.

His account of the shocking events at Lough Neagh demonstrated an outstanding ability to bring to life a complex and important story: a vital waterway being polluted with deadly cyanobacteria. It led to civil servants finally convening a multi-agency meeting and the Food Standards Agency developing the first UK test to establish if the lough’s fish are safe to eat. The story dominated the news agenda for weeks, followed up by Sky News, the BBC, ITV, RTE, and The Economist.

McBride is a very accomplished interviewer who gets under the skin of his subjects and is not afraid to ask the hard questions. McBride was trusted by BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan, one of the corporation’s best-paid broadcasters, on account of his robust and fair approach to interviewees. The result was a fascinating insight into a public figure who rarely grants interviews.

In another accomplished interview, McBride spoke to DUP founding member Wallace Thompson, who not only revealed that he believed some form of united Ireland is inevitable, but that he is open to considering it. The judges marked out McBride’s first-class interviewing skills, with one adding: “I’m heartened that local journalists like this still exist.”

Opinion Writer of the Year: Sam McBride, Belfast Telegraph

Lord Alderdice, the former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, described Sam McBride’s column on the accelerated decay of public services in the country as “exceptionally important” and said it “may well become a historically referenced piece in the future.”

The column highlighted the alarming number of people whose deaths were attributable to political and bureaucratic failures to prevent the collapse of the health system. It also drew on McBride’s wide-ranging investigative work, including the fact that tap water drunk by 40% of Northern Ireland’s population is taken from Lough Neagh’s polluted waters. According to Lord Alderdice, the piece “spelled out with absolute clarity what is happening in a way that I have not seen anyone else doing”. As such, McBride’s work is agenda-setting, using original research on which his opinions are then founded, and has stood up to rigorous scrutiny through his two years in the role.

Holding the powerful to account, no matter their party or position, his column on how Sinn Fein and the police “kowtowed” to loyalist crime bosses is a perfect example of how an opinion writer can advocate for change rather than simply “sounding off”. The judges said McBride’s body of work “challenges perceptions with pacey, finely crafted writing that was a unanimous first from all”.

Reporter of the Year (Daily): Sam McBride, Belfast Telegraph

Exceptional investigative skills are the hallmark of Sam McBride’s reporting, which culminated in breaking the news of perhaps the worst data breach in UK history, the astonishing moment that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) mistakenly published online the names and details of every employee – more than 10,000 people in all.

McBride broke the story on the website 90 minutes after receiving a tip-off, having established that the data had been removed so criminals were not alerted to it. Amid continued reporting about the ensuing crisis over the following weeks, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne resigned. McBride continued to hold the PSNI to account, publishing an investigation into alleged corruption in the force’s anti-corruption unit.

The judges praised McBride’s stories for their impact and depth, adding that they were “strong examples of holding public bodies to account”. In one cited article, he travelled to the Mobuoy illegal dump outside Derry – one of Europe’s biggest illegal sites which had begun polluting the city’s drinking water. His work revealed an old office from which a criminal enterprise was run. Weeks of work resulted in multiple stories and a podcast video report. McBride’s articles – combined with the enormous interest from the public – put pressure on the Stormont department responsible to take action on the scandal.

Reporter of the Year (Weekly): Charles Thomson, Newsquest

The impact of Charles Thomson’s dogged reporting can be seen in a variety of different, and equally dramatic, ways. In the case of Jason Moore’s murder conviction – where, as the reporter put it, “even his alleged victim’s family believe he is innocent”, Thomson presented evidence that is being used to challenge the outcome of the case. The stories sparked protests outside Downing Street and the High Court and were followed up by the Mirror, Guardian, Daily Mail, BBC and Private Eye.

Meanwhile, judges noted that Thomson “showed the value of trustworthy local reporting” in his work exposing an historic abuser. Since publishing his articles, dozens more victims have approached the Islington Survivors Network.

Following an account of appalling conditions at a block of flats, Thomson’s work forced Hackney Council to commit to major improvements after he shared horrifying pictures of residents surrounded by thick mould. The reporting created a ripple effect as more people came forward to share their experiences, revealing a pattern: Hackney had knowingly placed lung patients and immunocompromised residents in a building it knew could make them sick.

Sports Journalist of the Year: Steven Beacom, Belfast Telegraph

When Michael O’Neill – the man with the Midas touch who inspired the nation to the Euro 2016 finals –  agreed a new deal to return in charge of Northern Ireland’s national football team, it was Steven Beacom who delivered the world exclusive, days before it was officially announced. The article was just one of Beacom’s numerous football exclusives across the year, including new managerial appointments in the Irish League, dramatic takeovers, and the introduction of drug testing in the men’s and women’s top divisions.

For the judges, Beacom’s range of stories and his “ability to turn his hand so expertly to different genres” was outstanding. He took on the LIV Golf controversy, in which the PGA and DPA World Tours merged with a series funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) despite initially lambasting it. Following Rory McIlroy’s press conference, Beacom’s fearless and fun comment piece about the hypocrisy in golf showed an understanding of how sport can sometimes score an own goal.

But Beacom also celebrated sporting achievement, as seen in his piece on the enduring and inspirational success of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. It told the uplifting story of how a sport with no history in Northern Ireland captured the nation’s imagination.

Simon Hulme 2023Photographer of the Year: Simon Hulme, The Yorkshire Post

Underwater or in the air, The Yorkshire Post’s Simon Hulme, left, exemplifies how going the extra mile, or using an inventive approach, can pay dividends, as judges praised an excellent set of pictures that demonstrated a huge variety of different skills.

The photographer was particularly inventive when capturing a Spitfire flying over York Minster. Hulme was given the opportunity to take the shot while flying in a Mustang adjacent to the plane, capturing the photo at the exact moment as it passed the landmark in the air.

As part of a feature on the Bramley Mermaids, a group that attends synchronised water dance classes at the 100-year-old Bramley Baths, Hulme used a camera in an underwater bag, which he held at the water level. It meant that when Lucy Meredith swam past, he could create a remarkable atmosphere by combining the classic architecture of the baths with the whimsy of Lucy’s “mermaid tail” as she was caught mid-motion.

Meanwhile, Hulme included a celebration of colour in his photo of a woman standing with a tartan umbrella in a field of yellow rapeseed while looking at a wind farm. Not only do the colours stand out against each other in the shot, but by capturing the sky turning from blue to cloudy, Hulme added an unmistakable sense of drama.

Designer of the Year: Raymond Esteban, Belfast Telegraph

A great cover is a major contributing factor in engaging with readers – and Raymond Esteban’s memorable pages illustrate how creative design can transcend the confines of templates.

Esteban’s skill is in producing an eye-catching visual that draws attention to important causes. His “Sign of the Times” cover for Belfast Telegraph Weekend highlighted a feature about living in a noisy world as part of the deaf community. Each letter in the headline was attached to a pair of hands signing the relevant letter, creatively highlighting the cause at the centre of the article. Esteban’s quirky use of images, type and inventive design combine to make this a winning entry.

On one cover of Belfast Telegraph Review, the witty headline “Blend it like Beckham” referenced how the football icon’s use of beauty products was leading the way for other men to embrace make-up. But what makes the cover a joy is the playful image of Beckham with multiple hands holding make-up brushes, a razor and cream to his face, illustrating the piece in a light-hearted way.

This artful playfulness is also seen in a feature interview cover about broadcaster, critic and musician Jay Rayner, who was performing in Belfast. Three pull quotes highlight his fascination with food and enjoying the company of musicians, written in different typefaces across the cover.

Cathryn Nicholl Award: Bridget Dempsey, Newsquest

Sellafield is not just the largest nuclear site in Europe, it is a vital contributor to the Cumbrian economy even while it is in the process of being decommissioned, with tens of thousands of people employed either directly by the plant or the associated supply chain. That makes it one of the most important drivers of local news, and a continual source of interest to readers of the local press.

Thanks to persistent networking over the course of many months, Bridget Dempsey was able to secure a relatively rare interview with Sellafield’s CEO, Martin Chown, which offered not just an insight into future plans for the site but a personal look at a leader of local importance who guided Sellafield through the pandemic and its aftermath.

Dempsey emphasised Chown’s humility as a leader, and his belief that “everybody is just as important as everybody else” whether they are a nuclear worker, cleaner or security guard. But Dempsey also discussed Chown’s background, from starting his career working on the shop floor as an apprentice to later volunteering as a part-time ambulance driver.

MEN AwaabCampaign of the Year: Awaab’s Law, Manchester Evening News

The story of two-year-old Awaab Ishak’s death due to exposure to toxic black mould in social housing touched and horrified the country. It was brought to light thanks to the work of the Manchester Evening News in 2022, which exposed damp and mould right across the housing estate where Awaab lived and shamed the landlord into action.

But the publication also stuck with the story and spearheaded a campaign for a law, named after Awaab, to tackle the systemic issues involved. Working with the charity Shelter, the campaign included demands for strict timeframes to inspect and repair damp and mould in social properties, clear information to all tenants about their rights, and the health risks of mould to be recognised urgently in the sector.

More than 175,000 people signed a petition backing the law, and it passed parliament in July 2023. “Any campaign that leads to government action is a successful one,” the judges said. “And thanks to the paper’s dogged coverage and its petition, this campaign did just that.”

Supplement of the Year: BUSINESSiQ, The Northern Echo

The Northern Echo’s BUSINESSiQ published its 20th edition this year, and has become an essential voice for the region’s business landscape, across the north east and Yorkshire. With a sleek design and standout interviews, content is divided between in-depth interviews and case studies and commercial features, but the onus is on the personalities that shape regional businesses rather than dry statistics or formal headshots.

Its success can be judged not just by its increasing circulation but by its prolific range of brand extensions, including a separate quarterly magazine, Level Up campaign with associated live events, and newly launched Business Brew podcast. It has become invaluable to its audience, and in 2023 hosted an inaugural BUSINESSiQ Awards recognising the best local businesses.

Judges said the supplement has a clever commercial and editorial strategy, as well as a diversity of sources and voices. Most of all, however, they were impressed by its journalistic quality and production values, which suggest it will continue to go from strength to strength in the years ahead.

News Website of the Year: Belfast Telegraph

The quality of the Belfast Telegraph’s journalistic output is not in any doubt – but translating that into a seamless online experience is a feat that has eluded many rivals. Regional Press Awards judges were hugely impressed by the way the title had taken strong and authoritative local journalism into a digital platform, and the range of stories that were represented on the site.

That is borne out in the stats, with the Belfast Telegraph building a sustainable news model through the consistent quality of its work. Despite a crowded market for paid-for news in Northern Ireland, the brand attracted more than 11,000 digital-only subscribers since launching its paywall at the height of the first Covid lockdown three years ago.

The paper, judges said, “is calm and ordered in an increasingly vibrant digital age with an excellent user experience.” They commented on the “nice local feel to the website” but reserved particular praise for the mobile experience, which presents news, sport, business podcasts and more in a particularly useable and customised way.

Reporting Communities Award: Greater Govanhill

Govanhill, in south east Glasgow, is one of the most culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Scotland but has long suffered from negative perceptions, often fuelled by external media coverage which fails to properly engage local residents. The Greater Govanhill magazine and news website was launched in 2020 as a community interest company aiming to enable the community to tell its own stories through journalism, specifically providing a platform to marginalised groups and those typically under-represented in the media.

Twelve issues of the magazine have now been produced, 4,000 copies of which are distributed for free. Greater Govanhill works with local community organisations to ensure the most isolated are reached and articles are published in several languages – the editorial strategy focuses on those in the Roma, Muslim, LGBT+, socially disadvantaged, refugees and asylum seeker communities.

With a vibrant news website, online noticeboard, radio show and ‘Community Newsroom’ which helps local people develop journalism skills through free workshops and training programmes, Greater Govanhill has become a powerful example of how local, community-led journalism can bring about real change. “It had a mission and spoke for the community it served, was vibrant and produced great stories,” the judges said. “The community of Govanhill is well served by the publication.”

SundayWorldFront Page of the Year: Sunday World

Sunday World’s “Blind Courage” front page is a remarkably impactful way of telling a shocking and important story – the extraordinary courage of Olivia Creaney, a Craigavon mum of two who stood up to a gangland boss after he blinded her in a brutal attack.

The paper’s main image was a photograph of Olivia shortly after she was attacked, showing the extent of her injuries. She refused to drop charges of grievous bodily harm, assault, intimidation and possession of a knife, even though crime boss Jim Carlisle (who had 170 previous convictions) issued threats that he would “murder her whole family”. As a result, Olivia and her family had to move out of their home but she did not capitulate under the bullying. She pressed charges which eventually saw Carlisle jailed for his crimes.

An exclusive interview gave a further insight into the case, with Olivia revealing she had resisted pressure to drop the charges against Carlisle because she wanted her children to know she had done the right thing. It was said judges a “shocking picture and powerful headline which give real impact to this front page exclusive story… a sure winner on the newsstand.”

Best Live Coverage: Belfast Telegraph

In a competitive field covering a wide range of different approaches to live news coverage, the Belfast Telegraph stood out as a “masterclass in multi-platform reporting” for its ability to quickly and accurately break and contextualise complex and important stories, utilising multimedia and excellent journalistic skills to spectacular effect.

Two examples stand out. Firstly, in February 2023 the site broke the news that two gunmen had shot off-duty Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer John Caldwell in Omagh. It was a story that ran throughout the night and into the next morning, with constant updates and joint reporting from the title’s dedicated fast news reporter, news editor and crime correspondent.

Months later, Sam McBride broke the news that the PSNI had mistakenly published the personal data of every one of its officers and civilian employees. Within an hour of speaking to a senior PSNI press officer who was audibly in shock, the piece was live and media outlets across the country followed it up. McBride teamed up with the publication’s fast news reporter to provide rolling updates and analysis throughout the evening – garnering more than 74,000 page views.

Digital Initiative of the Year: Public Notice Portal (PNP)

Public notices, a traditional bedrock of local newspapers, had been notoriously slow to embrace the digital age. But the Public Notice Portal (PNP) is changing that fast. Backed by regional publishers and the News Media Association, the portal is designed to enhance local papers’ coverage of public notices in print by also making them available online via news media websites and the central portal itself.

In its response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on the sustainability of local journalism, the government said the portal was a “welcome innovation, intended to take advantage of print publishers’ growing digital audiences and to provide a centralised resource for all categories of notice.”

The portal is user-friendly, fully searchable by postcode and type of notices as well as delivering notifications for users who have signed up to receive alerts about particular types of notices, or notices relating to a specific area.

Judges praised the initiative for engaging people with public notices and enabling them to get involved. And by drawing up and implementing industry-wide standards for public notices so they can easily be uploaded by teams at local titles, the portal is creating a sustainable future for this traditional practice.

Scoop of the Year: Exposed: Our hidden camera uncovers exploitation and pressure-selling at direct sales firm – WalesOnline

WalesOnline’s investigation into exploitation and pressure-selling at a “cult-like” sales office was a standout winner for the judges in a highly competitive field. It exemplified committed and dogged journalism by sticking with a story and utilising multiple resources and storytelling techniques – and it delivered clear results.

Investigations editor Conor Gogarty’s initial piece saw him go undercover as a door-to-door sales rep, shining a light on gruelling work conditions. But it was his follow-up scoop that brought to light the wider issues. Wearing a hidden camera, he exposed misleading job adverts, lies told on doorsteps to sign elderly people up for charity payments, and appalling treatment of young sales reps.

The stories led to the firm involved shutting down, and revealed similar problems at related businesses, sparking a Fundraising Regulator investigation. One of the charities involved reported a ‘serious incident’ to the Charity Commission over the findings, prompting a separate regulatory investigation.

Cambridge IndyNews Brand of the Year (Small): Cambridge Independent

The Cambridge Independent does what all great local papers do – understanding and serving its community with detailed coverage and a willingness to give underheard voices a platform. What’s most impressive, however, is that it is doing so while growing its audience at an astonishing rate.

Over the last year, the paper has reported the debate over a city-wide congestion charge and provoked community-wide discussion about the benefits of a potential light rail system and a tourist tax in the city. It concluded a successful campaign with Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, supporting it in raising £1m for a surgical robot. And its Shining Stars campaign raised funds and awareness for a children’s bereavement support service.

Judges said the paper remains even-handed in its coverage of major campaigns, where other titles might try to jump on a bandwagon, and highlighted its ‘illuminating’ coverage of science and technology issues, culminating in a highly successful annual awards scheme.

Best of all, the Independent has seen impressive increases in circulation, engagement and readership as it recorded a year-on-year print sales increase almost every week in the current financial year.

belfast-telegraph-065250199News Brand of the Year (Large): Belfast Telegraph

The Belfast Telegraph is a “big brand, doing what it should be doing – and doing it brilliantly with impressive audience growth figures”, according to the judges. In 2023, that meant it threw its weight behind the biggest political stories, with the absence of a Stormont Executive providing a dramatic backdrop to events. The brand’s in-depth rolling coverage of the results of council elections in May delivered around 2 million page views over two days, for example.

A number of exclusives highlight the role the paper plays in its community, including an exposé on the pollution of Lough Neagh and a story outlining meetings between the chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, and paramilitaries.

The Telegraph doesn’t just excel at hard news – it puts business, sport, entertainment and human interest stories at the heart of its output, judges noted. The most popular print edition of the week on Saturdays includes a Review pullout, Weekend magazine, and an extensive sports section.

The judges also praised the publication’s BelTel podcast, which celebrated its first birthday in April and has now hit 30,000 downloads a week. They said it was a great step forward and a strong indication that the title is adapting to the changing demands of the readership.