There is very much an 'ode to the isles' flavour about this year's Highlands and Islands Media Awards, with journalists and titles from the myriad of islands making up the Outer Hebrides (The Western Isles), Skye and Orkney emerging winners in six of the 11 competitive categories.
The isles award-winners included the categories for Newspaper, Journalist, Young Journalist and Community Newspaper of the Year, while the recipient of the 12th award, for lifetime achievement, was Jim Tait, who retired last year after giving 51 years of service to The Shetland Times
The awards are annually presented at the Highlands and Islands Press Ball – one of the most popular, exceedingly sociable (helped by the odd dram or two) and well-attended events on Scotland's social calendar.
Newspaper of the Year is the Stornoway Gazette
weekly newspaper, which has been given a kiss of life of almost Lazarus proportions since its owner, JPIMedia, was bought by takeover vehicle National World for £10.2m in January last year.
The bilingual weekly was in dire straits, with both circulation and advertising revenue leaking at an alarming rate, when veteran journalist and former Labour Government minister Brian Wilson, whom, fortuitously, lives in the village of Mangersta on the Isle of Lewis, was approached by the new owners to help save the newspaper from the very real possibility of imminent closure.
Dunoon-born Brian, 73, whose wife, Joni, belongs to Lewis, in turn talked to Murray MacLeod, 45, a Lewis native, who was working as a writer, freelance journalist and BBC broadcaster on the island. The upshot was that they agreed to become joint editors of the ailing weekly and there was an immediate bonus when Eric Mackinnon agreed to return to his former paper as sports editor.
With a mission to re-engage with the Scottish isles audiences, Brian, who is chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides, is concentrating on writing, in Gaelic and English, helped, no doubt, by his spell as Minister for Gaelic in the Labour Government, with Murray largely handling editing, design and production.
Hopefully, the Gazette
has survived by the skin of its teeth. And the good news is that the circulation is slowly but steadily heading on an upwards trajectory. A candidate has also been identified to attract sorely needed advertising revenue.
This is not the first time that Brian has been at the tiller of an islands weekly newspaper. In 1972, he was famously involved as the founding editor and publisher of the West Highland Free Press
on Skye, for which, co-incidentally, Murray was a reporter in the 1990s.
On agreeing to his new role, Brian declared: 'I thought there was a duty to help restore the Gazette
as a paper of record for the islands. A local newspaper is important not just for the service it provides in the present but also as a vital source for future reference. The Western Isles is an area with its own highly distinctive issues, interests and culture. They require a local newspaper, firmly rooted in the community, to serve these purposes'.
Ness-born Murray had added: 'Despite falling sales, the Stornoway Gazette
brand remains prominent within the island community… We cannot take people's loyalty for granted and they won't return to it without reason. We will bring a mix of good, strong local stories and a team of writers that would grace any national newspaper'.
The media awards judges certainly think that Brian and Murray are on the right track. Gordon Fyfe, who has chaired the judging panel since their inception 31 years ago, told the 230 guests gathered for the Press Ball in the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness, on 4 February: 'The Stornoway Gazette
has undergone a remarkable transformation under the leadership of Murray MacLeod and Brian Wilson. It is a confident, community-focused publication which is well-designed and provides readers with a wealth of news and views, features and photographs'.
Brian Wilson subsequently wrote on Facebook: 'A year ago, I was asked by the new owners to help breathe a bit of life into the near-corpse of the Stornoway Gazette
. Not something I expected to be doing but it has been an interesting journey and it is nice to be writing again about things that I care about. The best reward has been the response of people who appreciate the value of a good local newspaper'.
His post attracted dozens of congratulatory messages, with Margaret Mackenzie, colourfully and appositely, observing: 'You have done a great job, Brian. You have changed the Gazette
from a tedious weekly penny novelette (to quote Para Handy
) to a challenging, stimulating read'.
The renaissance of the Stornoway Gazette
is still a work in progress… but it appears to be in very good hands.
Diageo Journalist of the Year is Sarah Sutherland, chief reporter of The Orcadian
weekly newspaper. Sarah's success follows closely on the Kirkwall-based publication achieving major recognition in the recent Scottish Press Awards – lifting the prestigious Chairman's Award for its outstanding coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and runner-up spot in the Journalism Team of the Year category. Sarah was also short-listed for the Local/Weekly Reporter of the Year award.
Gordon Fyfe told the guests: 'This prestigious prize goes to the journalist who demonstrates ability across the many and varied disciplines of the business. Our Journalist of the Year, Sarah Sutherland, gave us excellent entries in four separate writing categories – demonstrating a consistently high standard of work in researching and delivering strong readable human interest stories. She is a committed, hard-working and accurate journalist who speaks up for her community. She is emerging as a real talent'.
Young Journalist of the Year is Abigail Taylor, of the Benbecula-based Am Paipear
monthly community newspaper. This lively publication, launched in 1976 and edited by Iain Stephen Morrison, has previously won the Community Newspaper of the Year award for a record six times. It primarily serves the 4,000 folk who live on the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay.
In developing its new online service, Am Paipear
, with assistance from Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE), decided to create the post of graduate digital journalist.
Abigail, 23, was chosen for the job from almost 60 candidates. Abigail is originally from Northern Ireland but has lived in Scotland since 2015. She is a journalism and politics graduate from Stirling University where she edited the multi-award-winning student newspaper, Brig
Gordon Fyfe said: 'Abigail presented the judges with an outstanding portfolio. She is a real talent with a very bright future in journalism'.
The highly prized Community Newspaper of the Year award has also gone to the Isle of Lewis – to the Loch a Tuath News
whose editor, Jayne MacArthur, accepted the award. This newsy, compact monthly magazine mainly circulates in the Back district of Lewis in an area stretching from Tong to Gress.
This time Gordon Fyfe declared: ‘'Loch a Tuath News
is a standout community newspaper that appeals to readers of all ages with its wealth of news and views, features and photographs. We wish the team the best of luck during their silver jubilee celebrations'. He also paid tribute to all of the community newspapers providing such a vital lifeline to rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Endearingly, the Loch a Tuath News
contingent had excitedly tweeted from Inverness: 'We won!!!!! We are officially the Highlands and Islands Community Newspaper of the Year. Well done also to @sygazette who are Newspaper of the Year! What a night for the Leodsachs# isleoflewis# outerhebrides# hipbma'.
Journalists from the Inverness-headquartered Highland News and Media (HNM) publishing group picked up two major awards. Inverness-based Alasdair Fraser is Reporter of the Year and his colleague, Elgin-based Daniel Forsyth, was voted Photographer of the Year.
HNM publishes 18 weekly newspapers across a large, diverse geographical area stretching from Caithness to South Aberdeenshire. Its newspaper stable includes the The Inverness Courier
, The Northern Scot
and the Turriff, Inverurie and Ellon Advertiser
series of weeklies.
The Broadford-based widely-influential and widely-read West Highland Free Press
(WHFP) scored a double success. Kirsty Watt won the Highland Tourism Award for producing the best entry in the newly-created Environment and Sustainability category, while the WHFP's polemicist columnist - noted author, journalist and broadcaster, Angus Peter Campbell, received the Bòrd na Gàidhlig Award for best use of Gaelic.
The Press and Journal
(P&J) daily newspaper also notched up a notable double success. Susy Macaulay is Feature Writer of the Year and Stan Arnaud won the Business Reporter of the Year award. Susy was formerly managing editor of the North Uist-based Island News and Advertiser
free newspaper. Stan is now working for the Glasgow-based Morrison Media PR agency.
Gordon Fyfe commented: 'Susy stood out from a very impressive entry in the features category with a range of excellent human interest stories. Her work is varied in style and packed with imagery that creates a real sense of anticipation for the reader'.
BBC Scotland also featured on the awards list with Inverness-based Eilidh Davies winning the Sports Reporter of the Year category.
Jim Tait, who has so deservedly been awarded the Barron Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, actually joined The Shetland Times
in its printing division in 1972 – switching to a trainee reporter role in 1998 and becoming news editor in 2004. Jim, 66, recalls: 'The audacious move from typesetter to reporter back in the 1990s was virtually unheard of in our industry… and unlikely to be repeated'.
Not only was it a courageous career change but it led to Jim picking up awards for his distinctive writing style as well as helping steer The Shetland Times
towards the Newspaper of the Year title in the media awards on no less than five occasions during his time in the newsroom.
He told me when he retired last year: 'It has been an eventful five decades where I have seen many changes over the years. I had ambitions to be an architect or draughtsman as I was fairly good at technical drawing at school. But the science side of things let me down. So, when an apprentice printer job came up, I decided to go for it… and I started at the printing works a couple of weeks later'.
The chairman of the Press Ball, John Ross, an Inverness-based staff journalist on The P&J, was heading the organising team. He has worked very closely (and most amicably) with chair of the judging panel, Gordon Fyfe. Although I missed out this year, it is always a pleasure to witness the products of their labour. Well done, gentlemen!
Gordon is also a former P&J staffman who subsequently moved into PR as public relations manager for Highland Regional Council, retiring from that post in 2014.
The principal sponsor of this year's Press Ball was Diageo, and a new sponsor, Highland Tourism, provided additional support along with the Kane Partnership, Statkraft, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Chivas Brothers, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Hub North Scotland.
This year's charity fundraising will benefit four local organisations: the Journalists' Charity, Alzheimer Scotland, Macmillan Cancer Support and Action for Children.
This year's award winners are:
Newspaper of the Year
Winner: The Stornoway Gazette
Diageo Journalist of the Year
Winner: Sarah Sutherland, The Orcadian
Young Journalist of the Year (Alex Main Trophy)
Winner: Abigail Taylor, Am Paipear
Community Newspaper of the Year
Winner: Loch a Tuath News
, Isle of Lewis
Photographer of the Year
Winner: Daniel Forsyth, Highland News and Media
Reporter of the Year (Jim Love Memorial Trophy)
Winner: Alasdair Fraser, Highland News and Media
Feature Writer of the Year
Winner: Susy Macaulay, The P&J
Business Reporter of the Year
Winner: Stan Arnaud, The P&J
Best Use of Gaelic (Bòrd na Gàidhlig Award)
Winner: Angus Peter Campbell, West Highland Free Press
Sports Reporter of the Year
Winner: Eilidh Davies, BBC Scotland
Environment and Sustainability (Highland Tourism Award)
Winner: Kirsty Watt, West Highland Free Press
Barron Trophy for Lifetime Achievement
Jim Tait, The Shetland Times