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.