Peter Sands: We must not let the Regional Press Awards disappear

The great and the good of national newspaper journalism will be applauded at a glitzy dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel later this month. It will be a celebration of a vintage year for British journalism.

But for their regional cousins there will not even be a beer and bowl of peanuts in the backroom of the Cheshire Cheese. After 22 years the Regional Press Awards have been “rested” – a decision that indicates the gulf that appears to be growing between national and regional papers.

I had been optimistic that the awards would go ahead. The early signs were good with one of the big groups, who had not entered last year, saying that things had eased up and they would be back in the fold.

But last week others said that, given the economic circumstances, their papers would not be taking part. Their absence would have made the awards a nonsense, so organisers Wilmington had no choice but to call the whole thing off.

I am sure I am not alone in being saddened by the decision. For the last four years I have been chairman of the judges in the awards. Fifty independent judges, me included, give their services for no reward other than knowing they are supporting the industry they have grown up in.

Editors support the awards too. But when you are cutting staff, how can you justify sipping over-priced champagne in a swanky London hotel? It seems the combined cost of a £35 entry fee and a £130 ticket to the event were just too prohibitive.

I know that some newspaper managements also believe the awards are a distraction, a bit of irrelevant back-slapping and that they have no tangible benefits. I don’t agree. The regional press has now become the only branch of the media not to have its own national awards.

Ask those in film, television, magazines, national newspapers or any other creative industry if they feel their awards are an irrelevance. Apart from anything else the awards send out a message, both internally and externally, of an industry confident in itself. Their cancellation has already allowed commentators to refer to “a sad reflection of the parlous state of the sector” and to observe that the decision should “restore some gloom”.

If the regional press doesn’t celebrate the excellence that runs through its newspapers, applaud the journalists who go that extra yard every day, recognise the editors who invest in off-diary work and innovation then who will?

I am particularly uncomfortable with the suggestion that we just applaud excellence during the good times. Those who work hard to maintain standards when the going gets tough deserve to be honoured.

So what next? Maybe the answer is to scale the event down, hold it online, combine the regional and national awards (as they used to be) or something else altogether. What must not happen is for them to disappear altogether.

There will now be discussions on what can be done to ensure that the awards are resurrected next year. If you have any suggestions let me have them and I will ensure they get heard.

Peter Sands blogs here at Sands Media Services.

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