Confessions of a Journalism Award Nominee

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When the nominations for the Walkley Awards came out, I laughed maniacally. My bet had paid off. I had successfully hacked the Australian Journalism Awards to get a nomination.

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in the industry, I remember hearing about the Walkleys for the first time. Some of my radio peers were talking in the newsroom about nominations that just came out, got a surprise nod, and got snubbed. I scrolled through the awards as they spoke: Best Reporting, Photo of the Year, Media Innovation – and the big hit: the Gold Walkey.

That’s when I saw my mark: the award for best headline, caption or teaser, described as recognizing “the art of witty, succinct journalism that commands attention in all media.” What I discovered while browsing through previous winners was that this was basically a Pulitzer for the newspaper headline of who made you groan the most.

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Headlines have always existed to appease readers. In recent years, it has become much more difficult. Your headline now has to fight for your attention against a POV video of overrunning Ukraine, a scathing political message, a friend’s tweet with a typo just waiting to be reported, and every piece of content on Internet. A modern title must have effective SEO, adapt perfectly to different social platforms and compel readers to share it.

But based on what’s been won in the past, according to Walkley’s judges, what makes a good title? Word games. Each nominee and winner submitted a collection of puns used as headlines in a physical newspaper.

Full disclosure: I’ve always thought that some pun titles are self-indulgent, even if they’re clever. They usually sacrifice utility (does the reader actually know what the story is about?) for flair. Going digital has made them even more useless.

I will prove it. Here are some Walkley Award-winning titles that link to the article itself. Before you click, guess what the article is about and whether it piques your interest versus a headline that actually says who and what is involved.

“It’s time to shoot the ass”

“Tired and depressed”

“Journey of the drunks”

Now, I have nothing but respect for the work of my fellow nominees and previous winners. They are playing a game by the rules. I’m all for “having that bread”. And I’m not saying either that they are not masters of the art. Former winner Baz McAlister did a Headline Walkley Masterclass and it’s legitimately very good.

I don’t hate the gamer here, I hate the game. Rewarding headlines that make journalists laugh instead of compelling Instagram captions or effective social headlines is, I think, a failure to reward good journalism in 2022.

Should we just award the prize every year to ‘The AFL Grand Final: What time does it start, who plays and what are the rules’? This is probably the most effective headline for attracting readers, so maybe.

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to see if I could hack myself into the Walkley Award claim by reverse-engineering the formula.

Reading the rules carefully, I realized that despite the predominance of pun headlines in physical newspapers, you could be nominated for a tweet. Two hours before the midnight deadline, I went through the stories I had written over the past two months, picked out a few that I could think of as really obvious puns, I tweeted them in quick succession from the Crikey Twitter account and submitted them.

Where Prince Meets Hillsong: What We Can Learn From ScoMo’s Spotifybecame “Great Scottify”. “Aussies buy animal dewormer ivermectin on Facebook and Telegram to treat COVIDwas “Straight from the horse’s mouth”. And “How Australia’s tattoo community is passing a law they say could kill the industrywas tweeted along with the incredibly tortured “Hit-for-tatts.”

The rest is history. I now mistakenly stand among the most esteemed peers in the Australian journalism industry. Any publisher of a book I write in the future may use “Walkley-nominated” in the blurb. I even asked my boss for a raise (he said “come back to me if you win”).

Wish me luck tonight!

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