The story behind the ‘interview of the year’ which proved local democracy is far from boring

Behind Local News
May 19 · 5 min read
Molly Williams of the Sheffield Star, centre, with Nick Ferrari and Lynne Anderson of the News Media Association

A Local Democracy Reporter has beaten competition from across the regional press to be named ‘Interviewer of the Year.’

Molly Williams, who works for the scheme at the Sheffield Star, won the award for a powerful interview with the city’s council leader.

Judges described Molly’s interview as ‘a classic piece of public interest journalism that led to greater transparency at Sheffield City Council.’

They added: “This extensive interview gave readers a unique glimpse into the world of the council leader.”

Molly is the first person to win the Cathryn Nicoll Interviewer of the Year award, which is administered by the News Media Association and was presented at Friday’s Regional Press Awards in London.

Cathryn Nicoll, who was a news editor at the Croydon Advertiser, was known for her passionate belief in journalistic standards and training, and the new award in her honour aims to highlight and reward brilliant interviewing and feature writing by young journalists.

Molly was presented with the award and £500 cash prize by NMA deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson at the Society of Editors.

Lynne said: “Molly is a very worthy winner of the first ever Cathryn Nicoll Award. Not only did she manage to get the leader of the council to give her views on a range of topics and issues, but her skilful handling of the interview resulted in a better and more transparent relationship with the council.

“That is exactly the kind of brilliant local journalism that the award was set up to recognise.”

Here, Molly reveals more about the interview which won her the prize, while further down you can also read from Harrison Jones of the Oxford Times, and Holly Lennon of the Glasgow Evening Times, who were the other finalists…

Sheffield City Council has faced a lot of criticism in recent years, not least for the tree felling controversy which has significantly damaged trust in elected leaders while continuous cuts to funding has often left residents feeling disaffected. So it was about time residents got some honest answers on the decisions made and met the people behind them.

A key part of this was getting councillor Julie Dore, who has ruled over the city for nearly a decade, to open up. My colleagues warned me it would not be easy and reminded me of her reputation for being a bit of a closed book. We managed to pencil in an hour which was quite a tight time frame. But around two hours in we had completely forgotten the clock and covered almost everything — from the hard decisions made to keep services going and harsh public criticism to caring for her son and rare nights in watching The Jungle Book.

At one point she even thanked me and said it had ‘been good to reflect on all that’s happened’. Walking back to the newsroom I knew what I had in my notebook was something special and probably the best interview of my career so far. My editor put it on the front page and readers were given a window into how decisions were made behind closed doors and the life of this leader who had been calling the shots on things that affected their everyday lives.

This double-page feature was followed by nine others, with each of the cabinet members. We ran these one a day over two weeks in December in conjunction with a Star Cabinet event which brought leaders face to face with the public for an evening of questions and debate.

The stories were spread far and wide online and led to more access to the city’s decision makers. We have also been in discussions about setting up more regular meetings to discuss topical issues on and off the record with Coun Dore.

Harrison Jones, Oxford Mail reporter

Harrison Jones

The interview was difficult to get, because Alan Rusbridger is a well-known character in high demand.

After a number of unanswered emails, he eventually replied, likely because I mentioned previously working at the Guardian.

When we first met we had agreed it would not be an interview (it felt like he was sounding me out), but I persuaded him to do a follow-up interview in which we could discuss his forthcoming book.

I think it helped that I had been on the Scott Trust bursary scheme, which he is a supporter of.

The interview felt like a good chance to discuss his ideas about journalism (I had already attended a speech he gave in Oxford, read his book and watched him in many Guardian morning conferences) and get some insight into a man who shaped one of the world’s most influential newspapers for many years.

He has countless fascinating stories to tell.

Holly Lennon, The Evening Times reporter

Holly Lennon

I was able to interview secure my interview as part of a partnership with Social Bite Sleep in the Park.

Frightened Rabbit were booked to perform at the event in the months before frontman Scott Hutchison’s suicide.

They decided to go ahead with the performance in his memory, and to raise money for charity.

I was given the opportunity to speak to Scott’s brother and bandmate Grant, who had just gotten married without his best man days before.

Fortunately, Grant spoke openly and honestly about the grief he, his family and bandmates were going through.

Despite Scott’s death still being so raw, he gave an honest insight into his feelings, what he would do differently and how he would like to prevent other people going through what his brother did.

The piece showed that even though Scott is no longer here, his music and legacy will live on through Frightened Rabbit, his family and the charity they have set up in his name.

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Behind Local News UK

The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK