Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rush to judgment

Two or three times a year, I help judge journalism contests. Thus, two or three times a year, I recall this statement attributed to the late German chancellor Otto von Bismarck:

"People who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law should not watch either being made."

I would modify that quotation: “Journalists who enjoy winning awards should not watch journalism contests being judged.”

Don’t get me wrong. Journalism contests serve an important role in our industry. They can serve as a morale-booster (for the winners), motivator (for winners and losers) and educator (for judges and others who study the winning entries for innovation and ideas).

The Telegraph Herald recently fared well in the Inland Press Association competition, including two first-place awards (for excellence in editorial writing and for picture use) and a handful of second- and third-place honors. Inland is a multi-state organization, with about 1,000 member newspapers -- not all entered the contest or were in our circulation category -- so we are proud of our showing.

And, of course, we commend the judges on their knowledge and insight. After a contest in which we do not place, well, clearly the judging was inferior. Or something like that.

However, our results notwithstanding, the judging of these contests varies widely. Over the years, we have been surprised to win an award for what we considered a marginal entry – and shocked to have a “can’t-miss” entry shut out.

My best example of the unpredictability and occasional inconsistency of various contests: In 1997, Michael Gartner, then editor of The Ames Tribune, received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. A few weeks later, the Iowa Newspaper Foundation contest winners were announced, and Gartner finished second. The winner looked quite sheepish in stepping forward, ahead of a Pulitzer winner, to receive his plaque.

However, when it is all said and done, over the course of years and various contests, the better newspapers get their due.

For journalism’s top prize, the Pulitzer, organizers hand-pick the judges from among the nation’s best-known journalists. They convene in New York, where entries are scrutinized and groups of judges, working together, discuss and debate the merits of the finalists.

A few years ago, I was invited to be a judge of the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards. Judges convened in Cincinnati, where we were assigned to a single category. Mine was column writing. We spent the better part of two days reading columns, culling the field, re-reading, culling again, re-reading and finally talking about the merits of our finalists. It was not a scientific process – in the end, it comes down to judges’ opinions -- but it was thorough.

Most state and regional organizations don’t have the time – or budgets – to conduct their contests in that manner. Some of the nation’s top journalism schools judge the Inland contest. But in most cases, state newspaper associations and Associated Press bureaus arrange “swaps” with peers in other states. For example, on Friday I helped judge the Colorado contest, and Colorado editors will judge Iowa’s contest in three weeks.

This is where the sausage analogy comes in.

The associations recruit judges from member newspapers – whose publishers generously donate their employees’ time and travel – who fill a hotel conference room and start reviewing thousands of entries. At its peak on Friday, we had 53 Iowa journalists judging 5,000-plus Colorado entries.

In these contests, the outcome of a particular category is usually determined by a single judge. Hopefully, that judge has experience or expertise in the subject he or she is judging (be it sports columns, editorials, photography, graphics and so forth).

With that in mind, the Iowa Newspaper Foundation extended special invitations to previous Iowa winners to judge similar categories from Colorado. (Dave Kettering of the TH photo staff came to Des Moines to judge many photo categories.)

Many hands make light work, but there is not time to give an in-depth reading to each and every article. If judges did not trim the field after a quick read, to spend the most time with the best five or six “finalists,” we would still be in Des Moines.

I judged Sustained Coverage, and one paper’s one entry consisted of at least 60 full-page “tear sheets.” Other papers also had substantial entries – after all, the category was Sustained Coverage. Judging that one category in one circulation class took me more than three hours. Did I get it right? I think so, but the results are based on my opinion and mine alone.

The judges take their responsibility seriously. After all, we hope that the work of Iowa newspapers will receive similar professional consideration when our entries are placed before Colorado journalist-judges. We will find out what they decided in early February.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Open house

Sunday's activities included a stop at the open house at Mazzuchelli Middle School, the new facility of Holy Family Catholic Schools.

The school is attached to Wahlert High School, which all four of our kids attended, and is a combination of new construction and remodeled Wahlert classrooms. It is blended so well that a visitor (this one) couldn't recognize what parts were once part of the high school and what parts are new construction.

Who knows? Perhaps one day this sparkling facility will be known as Saint Mazzuchelli Middle School. The Sinsinawa Dominicans are among the leaders pushing Father Mazzuchelli for sainthood.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Campaign Season becomes Crabby Season

I have worked on daily newspapers more than 30 years. Over that time, a journalist can get a feel for campaign season.

In the final two or three weeks before Election Day, people get crabbier. And suspicious. And accusatory. Folks will find reason to complain. It is “crunch time.” The stakes are high. Many people are working night and day for their candidates or issues, and the strain is starting to show.

Democrat or Republican, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a non-partisan reality.
This campaign season is no exception.

It has gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to receive a complaint that, if the Telegraph Herald carrier tosses the paper toward the left half of a subscriber’s front porch, that will prove the paper’s liberal bias. Or, on the right half, our conservative leanings.

Over just the past couple of days, I have been called a socialist. We lost a subscriber because we covered Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s speech at Clarke College without challenging all his statements and detailing the skeletons in his family’s closet. Another subscriber said my decisions on what letters to the editor are published are based on the TH Editorial Board’s endorsements.
The various complaints of excessive liberalism or conservatism don’t surprise me. The stronger people hold to his or her beliefs, the more likely they are to consider media coverage or commentary to be unfair and contrary to their opinions.

In a scientific survey we commissioned a year or so ago — the great majority of respondents said the TH was neither liberal or conservative. Among those who felt otherwise, about half said we are liberal and the other half said we are conservative. I figure that’s a good place to be.

One thing has changed, at least in my observation, over the past three decades. It’s unfortunate that people seem less willing to accept that folks who hold a different opinion are not automatically bad, evil or stupid.

Democracy is about discussion, debate and decisions. Thoughtful people should be able to disagree without demonizing the other side. But it seems that people are less willing to believe that.

Take heart: Two weeks from Tuesday, Election 2006 will be history.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

They were British?

As someone who did most of his growing up in the 1960s, I like to believe that I know my oldies. I do well with naming 1960s pop and rock hits, the artists and release years (and sometimes even season of the year).

And while I know some trivia about the major artists -- Elton John's name is really Reginald Dwight, etc. -- those facts are not my strongest suit.

Still, I was surprised, after buying a British Invasion compilation, The British Are Coming Vol. I, to discover that several of the bands on the CD were British. Can't say that I thought about it much, but I assumed they were American. For 40 years or so, I didn't realize the acts were also part of the Invasion.

Sure, I knew the Kinks and the Searchers and Donovan were all British. Even the Tremeloes.

But Mungo Jerry, whose one hit was "In the Summertime"? And the Foundations? And how about Status Quo with their psychedelic "Pictures of Matchstick Men"? Now they sound American. Don't they?

What is it that caution about assumptions?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

To the printer!

Lisa Camp, the managing editor of McFarland Publishers, informed me this morning that my Red Faber biography is going to print today.

Allowing time for packaging, shipping and delivery, books should reach the tri-state area in 2-3 weeks, or, as Lisa said (to play it on the safe side?), "before Thanksgiving."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tribute to Gordie

The potrait tribute to the late Gordon Kilgore, long-time KDTH newsman, was presented to the National Rivers Hall of Fame (Jerry Enzler accepting) last week as part of KDTH's 65th anniversary celebration.

Its plaque reads: In memory of our friend, Gordon Kilgore from his co- workers at AM 1370 KDTH, 92.9 KAT-FM, 97.3 KGRR and 101.1 WVRE.

Kilgore was a colleague and competitor. From its inception in 1941 until 2000, KDTH was owned by the Telegraph Herald's parent company, Woodward Communications, Inc. Kilgore, who died last month, retired in 1993. Over the years -- especially during the Flood of 1965 -- Kilgore became a lover of and advocate for the Mississippi River.

Congratulations to artist Gary Olsen for the creation and to Paul Hemmer and the rest of the team at Radio Dubuque, current owner of KDTH, for the tribute.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Quotation for the occasion

After seeing the offensively inept Chicago Bears somehow come from way behind to defeat the Arizona Cardinals in the Monday Night Football game, 24-23, I thought of what National Baseball Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez once said:

"I'd rather be lucky than good."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Motivational meet

I broke away from my indexing chore (see previous post) Saturday afternoon and, with Madame X, headed to Iowa City for a mini-getaway weekend. We burned some of my frequent-guest points with Marriott and enjoyed dinner at Mondo's.

The main purpose for the trip was to run in Iowa City's annual Run for the Schools. We both entered the 5K (3.1 miles) and we both finished second in our respective age groups. My official time of 19:57 (my wristwatch had 19:55) was 14-15 seconds slower than my previous 5K on Labor Day, where the course was billiard-table flat. Today's course had a couple of gentle upgrades, but it also featured a much-appreciated downslope finish.

This race was selected partly because it comes midway between the Labor Day and Thanksgiving Day races in Dubuque. It helped me maintain some motivation for getting up to run on these dark, increasingly cold mornings.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Booking it

I've neglected this blog the past week (and no one has complained!), but I have my reasons (excuses).

My best excuse: Two weeks ago today, I received the page proofs for my book Red Faber: A Biography of the Hall of Fame Spitball Pitcher. My publisher (McFarland, of Jefferson, NC) wants the proofs back as soon as possible because it has a press run scheduled on or about October 30. So I need to hustle to proofread all the pages and build an index. I squeezed in a vacation day Tuesday; nights and weekends have not been enough.

The proofs were mailed Tuesday afternoon (whew!), but the index is still going to take some time; I am about one-third of the way through the book. Meanwhile, there are some marketing matters requiring attention.

McFarland emphasizes that the press date is not firm; things could change. However, IF the schedule holds, there should be a finished product by mid-November.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Good news from Thailand (er, Switzerland)

Ever since the coup in Thailand a couple of weeks ago, I have been concerned for my Thai editor and friend, Chaichitri Limcharoon.

Chai is editor of his family's daily newspaper in Thailand's second-largest city, Chiang Mai, and president of the Chiang Mai provincial council. In addition, he is a leader in press associations, including the Confederation of Asian Journalists.

Our families have become acquainted the past decade, going back to the summer of 1995, when we hosted Chai in our home for six weeks. I visited his country later that year. The entire Cooper family visited Thailand in late 1998. I made another trip there in 2000, to attend cremation ceremonies for his late father. Chai and his lovely wife, Pat, came to the U.S. in 2002 to attend our older daughter's wedding.

How did the coup affect Chai, a prominent journalist and regional politician? My e-mails went unanswered -- not terribly unusual for Chai, who keeps very busy -- but I was concerned nonetheless.

So, this morning I placed an international call to Chai's cell number. That cell phone is a virtual appendage of Chai. With the 13-hour time difference, between Dubuque and Chiang Mai, I figured that my call would reach him about 8:30 p.m. today.

My time calculations were correct -- except that Chai was nowhere near Thailand.

"Brian!" he answered. "We are in Switzerland."

My next thought was that he was in exile after the coup.

Nope. Just on a business-and-pleasure trip with his wife and two children. His duties with the Asian journalists group take him all over the world.

The coup had no impact on him, he explained, because he is a regional politician. I hope that is all there is to it -- military governments have a tendency to not embrace a free press.

Chai said he will be visiting the Thai ambassador to the US, in Washington, in November. We'll compare calendars to see if we can get together.