The Oswestry Advertizer picked up on my winning of the Sir William Lyons Award and ran a great story about it this week. Many thanks to Emily at the 'Tizer!
 
 
2012 will be remembered for me as the year I was lucky enough to win the Sir William Lyons Award.

For those who don't know, Sir William Lyons was the founder of Jaguar. He set the award up with the Guild of Motoring Writers in 1966 as an attempt to encourage young people to write about the automotive industry.

I was delighted to have been shortlisted and invited for an interview with a panel of experts at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, London. I returned a month later to receive the award at the annual Guild dinner.

To enter the award, I wrote the following pieces:

An overview of Jaguar design director, Ian Callum

Jaguar has come a long way over the last five years. Since the sale of Jaguar to Tata, the brand has returned to the cool British brand it was in the days of the E-Type. And a lot of this can be attributed to Jaguar's design director, Ian Callum. Callum is responsible for the design of the entire current Jaguar range, including the stunning F-Type – the first picture of which has been leaked this week ahead of its Paris motor show debut.

He was once quoted as saying: "Jaguars should be perceived as cool cars and cool cars attract interesting, edgy people."

Five years ago Jaguar was perceived as anything but cool. The brand did nothing to attract interesting, edgy people – instead it attracted elderly people who wore flat caps and lived in suburbia.

This was thanks to disappointing cars such as the S and X-Types – two cars which lacked the handsome looks of Jaguars of old and weren't helped by a poor reputation for reliability. Neither car stole customers from German brands like Jaguar hoped.

Callum joined Jaguar in 2000 – a job he'd dreamed of since a young boy. At the age of 14 he'd lusted over an XJ6 in a showroom and decided that one day he wanted to design Jaguars.

While Callum had input in the 2004 facelifted S-Type and the 2004 X-Type estate, it was the later generation of Jaguars that Callum really made his mark.

The new XK was launched in 2006 and shocked the world with its striking looks. Its critics complained that it looked too much like an Aston Martin, something that could not be said of  Jaguars of the last decade.

The following year, the C-XF was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show. This was the concept car that gave the first hint of what the S-Type's replacement would look like.

At the time Callum told the press: “Great Jaguars turn heads in the street. They make people stop and pay attention. They evoke instant desire. That's what the C-XF does and that's what the next generation of Jaguars will do."

When the production XF was unveiled later that year at Frankfurt, the design proved controversial. The chrome mesh grill harked back to Jaguars of old while the rest of the car looked like nothing ever seen with a Jaguar badge before. But it soon became a success, winning awards and being loved by the general public and motoring journalists alike.

Two years later the new XJ arrived to a similar reception. The shape of the XJ had hardly changed over the last 40 years and while the mechanics of the latest XJ were based on the previous model, Callum's design was completely different to any XJ seen before.

And that's what Callum does best. His designs are controversial and new, completely different to Jaguars of the past but stunning to look at. That's what appeals to interesting, edgy people who now buy Jaguars. Callum has saved Jaguar.

What gives a car or bike 'iconic' status?

The Land Rover Defender is one of the most iconic cars money can buy. Park a 2012 Defender next to a 1948 Series One and you will be able to see clear similarities. Yes, the current Defender might be fitted with the most eco-friendly engine ever fitted to a Defender, and back in 2007 it lost its legendary front flaps (Defender style air con) but, even with luxuries such as heated seats, it's still the same old, iconic Defender.

It's a bit of a motoring cliché to describe the Defender as iconic. But how is it iconic? Is it because it's an old design lacking in modern safety features such as crumple zones and airbags, in which case surely iconic is a bad thing? 

Tim West from Middlesbrough is a die-hard Land Rover fan who will argue until his death that his Defender is an example of one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced. He told me: “It is a direct derivative of the original Series One. Just the shape alone is iconic. Show a silhouette of a Defender to anyone who has even the smallest knowledge of cars and they will tell you it's a Land Rover. It is a symbol of ruggedness, of the ability to achieve the otherwise impossible. It defines the brand that is Land Rover.”

But even Tim admits it has its downfalls: “It is also symbolic of dismay, frustration, expense and unreliability. But we'll forget about those ones.”

Another 'iconic' British vehicle is the Morgan. The first Morgans were introduced in 1909 as a cheap way of getting from A to B over the Malvern Hills. Admittedly they're a bit different to Land Rovers in that they're built to go on twisty roads through mountains rather than over them, but they've both got a strong fan base around the world and have inherited iconic status.

It would seem that liking old English designs is a terribly British thing to do. One Dutch review of the Morgan 3 Wheeler stated: “The English people are crazy. They are terribly behind, and proud of that.”

It's hard to disagree with this statement. Compare the Morgan to European sports cars, or the Defender to European 4x4s, and on everything – safety equipment, performance figures, fuel efficiency, standard equipment – the British rivals are way behind. Does this mean that, frankly, cars have to be a bit pants to be iconic?

All the iconic cars on the roads – the Defender, every Morgan ever built, the Reliant Robin, the Mini, the 2cv, the Austin Allegro – are a bit crap.

Of course, some people would argue that there are exceptions. As a Land Rover enthusiast the Range Rover springs to mind for me. The original sparked the SUV rage and the latest one is brilliant. Loved by lottery winners and football players alike, there's obviously something about the Range Rover that makes it stand out against its rivals.

But, compared to its rivals, technically it's a bit rubbish. They're known for being a bit unreliable, which should be unforgivable on a car that can cost several times what most of us earn in a year, but they sell well because they have an image which portrays them as a little bit more special than the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes ML and the like. Park a Range Rover of any age on your drive and the neighbours will think you've made it. Sure, an X5 will impress them, but not quite the same as the iconic Range Rover.

American writer Augusten Burroughs in his memoir, Magical Thinking, wrote: “I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” I think this hits the nail on the head about why cars which are a bit rubbish are loved by so many and earn iconic status. It's said that cars reflect our personality. 

Defender drivers tend to be the outdoor type who can be a bit hot headed and don't particularly care about their appearance. Yes, it's a massive stereotype, but in my experience it's true. Morgan drivers are often a bit eccentric – they hark back to the old days and complain that 'things aren't made like they used to be'. Their cars reflect this. People aren't perfect so they like cars that aren't either.

These flaws in iconic cars are often what people describe as character. A friend of mine drives a classic Mini – one of the most iconic cars ever produced – and if he accelerates hard or brakes heavily he can feel the engine try to escape from the car. He describes this as 'character'.

In which case, does character make a car iconic? In my opinion, possibly. Bland cars that are absolutely perfect but lack character never make iconic status. Can you remember the Mitsubishi Carisma from the mid 90s? It was a reliable, sensible family car but it was one of the most boring cars ever produced. Because of this, most people have now forgotten about it and it certainly isn't iconic.

The Carisma's rival, the Ford Mondeo, on the other hand, probably could be described as iconic. No, it's no Land Rover, but a Mondeo is iconic of the working man in the mid 90s. Can you imagine Tony Blair targeting Carisma man? It doesn't have quite the same ring to it. But the Mondeo is a fairly bland car.

Foibles lead to character, and character goes a long way to iconic status. For a car to be truly iconic it needs to have caught the imagination of the general public. It needs to be loved by many. The Mondeo is an exception – it is iconic in that it represents an era, but as a fairly bland car it's not truly iconic. People will not be driving their Mondeos to classic car meets in 20 years time. Defenders, however, will be iconic for years to come.
 
 
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All journalists are bombarded with press releases. Read any local paper and try to work out how many stories originated from a press release - it will be quite a large proportion.

Unfortunately the majority of press releases are boring and it's all too easy to slip into churnalism mode - churning out generic stories using copy sent from PR companies.

As a lot of reporters don't like press releases, any workie is likely to be passed piles of them and expected to produce good, usable copy from the dullest of the dull.

This is exactly what happened during my fortnight at a local weekly paper.

In preparation for my university group of first year journalists escaping over summer and spending time on work placements our lecturer, Tor Clark, advised that it's always a good idea to read even the most boring press releases in full, as they might surprise you. He told us about a press release he received from the local Womens' Institute about their trip to Blackpool. There was a full page about what a lovely day it had been, how they'd had ice creams and walked along the beach. And in the last sentence, it was casually mentioned that "Unfortunately Gladys felt ill on the journey and when we arrived in Blackpool she collapsed and passed away."

Suddenly this press release jumps from the recycling pile to a page lead.

Now, not all press releases will have gems like that, but it's still worth doing some digging and asking some more questions. Companies might send you a highly polished press release complete with very nice quotes they'd love you to use, but phone them up and ask them a few questions and they could easily let slip something slightly sexy.

The closest I came to this happening was a secretary of an organisation ranting about why their funding had been cut and blaming several big names in the area. Unfortunately at the end of the conversation she remembered who she was talking to and took back all she said and insisted it shouldn't be reported. We could have a long discussion on the ethics of this situation - but the truth is, I was a workie on a paper that relied heavily on the locals, and if I upset them it would not go down well. I therefore played it safe but still produced a solid story that was published with a byline.

At the end of the day some press releases are boring, no matter how you look at them. On my last day I wrote one about the local tip having an open day. I phoned them up, got quotes, and tried to find an angle that was interesting. In the end I gave up, decided it would probably be spiked, so wrote a very sarcastic article about what an exciting day it would be. I was very surprised when it was used in the paper exactly how I wrote it. It turns out I'm not very good at writing in a sarcastic manner and I just sounded genuinely excited about bin lorries.

My next work experience spell will be at a motoring publication, Fleet News. I've done work experience at a similar magazine in the past and can remember being given lots of press releases but being slightly stumped about how to handle them (I was young and it was my first insight into journalism). Therefore I decided to open it up to Twitter on how to handle a press release when working for a car magazine.

Jamie Fretwell, journalist for Auto Express, tweeted:

"1) Remember releases have news manufacturers want you to write about. Other stories need to be dug up & investigated and... 2) Ascertain really quickly what is the most important fact. Then succinctly tell your editor why your readers should know."

Andrew Noakes, lecturer in automotive journalism at Coventry University, added:

"If a release has technical info you don't understand, don't just copy it into your story. Find out what it means first."

If you have any tips about how to handle press releases, please share them below.

 
 
I check the website of my local paper, the Shropshire Star, on a daily basis.

When I visited this morning there was a story I couldn't help but feel I've read before. It was about drivers in Wem, a small town in North Shropshire, who are "continuing to dice with death" at a level crossing in the town.

A quick search on the website revealed that this certainly isn't the first time I've read the story - in fact there have been eight different stories in just over a year about drivers "risking their lives" at the crossing.

The first time this story was used it included a CCTV video of a driver driving dangerously through the crossing and details of the driver who was subsequently banned from driving.

But recent stories include nothing but a few statistics from Network Rail.

Is this a long running campaign by the Shropshire Star to encourage the people of Wem to take a bit more care at the crossing? No, I don't think so.

It takes a matter of minutes for a journalist to contact Network Rail, get a few figures, and then report a sensationalist story about a small level crossing in a sleepy Shropshire town. I just wonder how many times they think they can get away with posting the same story before it stops selling papers.

I wonder if it's a coincidence that each time the story has been used it's been later in the week - an easy Friday afternoon story for lazy hacks perhaps?

Read the stories for yourself:
Driver banned for rail crossing madness – posted Thursday 6th May 2010
Drivers in court over railway crossing failures – posted Thursday 3rd June 2010
Drivers still risking lives on Wem level crossing – posted Thursday 8th July 2010
More drivers fined for ignoring Wem level crossing signs – posted Thursday 29th July 2010
Motorists fined for ignoring Wem crossing lights – posted Thursday 2nd September 2010
Drivers still dicing with death on Wem level crossing – posted Friday 19th November 2010
Drivers still risk death at Wem level crossing – posted Friday 6th May 2011
Drivers still risking lives at Wem level crossing – posted Friday 10th June 2011