Tuesday, April 15, 2008

5 Lessons from newspaper contests

Here's a humbling series of events, and the still unpopular lessons I learned as a result:

In February 2005, my co-workers put a crown on my head and carried me to the front of a banquet hall to receive a plaque that said I was the state's Journalist of the Year. I'd secretly dreamed of winning that award for years, but it took the end of my career as an editor to make me eligible.

I got my paper's nomination because, as our former executive editor put it, 2004 had been "kind of a down year" for the staff. Most years we nominated a reporter for a specific article or series, but my nomination was just for my "body of work" as a features writer. Ouch.

That was the fall of 2004. Fast-forward to early 2005: The South Carolina Press Association posted the winners list for most of the award categories to its website, and I eagerly I called it up. I'd entered lots of categories, and after spending years polishing other people's work I was hungry for some glory in my name.

And here's what I won: Nothing. In category after category, nothing.

To say that I was humiliated is to miss the most obvious point: The staff knew that I was the paper's Journalist of the Year nominee, and to be nominated for a "body of work" that didn't collect a single individual award made me a pathetic figure. No one spoke to me that day. People literally averted their eyes in passing.

So how did I win the Journalist of the Year title without winning a single award for a single individual story? Simple: Different judges.

Here's how the journalism-contest racket works: State press associations take turns judging each other's contests. Hence, every other year the newsroom administrator would drop a foot-tall stack of contest entries from, say, Arkansas, on the city desk with instructions for me to pick my top three. And that evening I would take an extra-long smoke break and plow through all the Enterprise Reporting entries from Arkansas dailies in the 80,000+ circulation category.

No check. No balance. Just one hurried opinion.

Journalist of the Year, on the other hand, was selected by in-state judges, through some secret process of I-don't-know-what, and the results aren't announced until the awards banquet. I'll never know how I won, why I won, or what the win really meant.

The lesson
So here's what I've learned from 20 years of journalism contests:

  1. That 2005 Journalist of the Year title was nice, but the valuable lesson was the humiliation that came first. I still don't have an opinion on whether I deserved the J.O.Y. title, but I'm confident that my individual entries were just better than most of what that year's judges liked. At some point we all have to grow up, stop seeking the approval of others and trust our own judgment. That's it. That's all. That's life.
  2. That thing you always wanted because you believed it would validate your efforts? I've had a few, and each quickly proved profoundly hollow. Their value? Winning eventually frees you from the need for external validation, because you no longer have to worry that you're rejecting it because of sour grapes.
  3. Because there's just no logic to most awards, the important thing to remember is that winning first place for Investigative Reporting is probably just an indication that you're basically competent at some portion of your job. Maybe. Just don't bet on it.
  4. The best way to win writing contests? Write to win contests. Stick to the tried and true. Play the game. Self-promote. Read past winners and follow their formula. Have a plan, then stick to it.

Which brings us to Lesson No. 5, and with the newspaper industry crashing down around us, it's the one I wish I could convince everyone to heed: The best approach to newspaper contests is to stop entering them.

I got a second-place plaque for something at the 2006 banquet, but I felt like a hypocrite for entering and didn't bother to pick it up. That led to my "stop entering" epiphany and later that year I pitched the idea to our executive editor: Opt out. Don't enter. Make a statement: We're turning our focus 100 percent toward our readers, and the only contest we want to win is the daily contest for your attention and trust. Make it a one-year moratorium, I told him. Hell, I figured the PR value of such a move would be worth whatever it cost us in contest prestige.

I didn't expect he'd take me seriously. He didn't.

So why rock the boat? Well, consider this: I've been producing a Friday features section (that I developed with Janet Edens and my former boss, Judy Watts) since March 2007 and it hasn't featured a byline yet. Imagine that: a features section without feature stories. I have no idea how successful it is -- there's been no readership study in the past year to tell me -- but I can tell you that the readership for traditional "lifestyles" features writing across the industry isn't exactly robust.

If you knew that, wouldn't you want to experiment with new approaches? Sure you would -- if you're focused on your readers and your business. But it's not what you'd do if you're focused on awards.

I'm not the only person who feels this way, apparently. Janet and I got to eat catfish with "Mister Magazine" Samir Husni outside Oxford, Miss., earlier this year, and Husni told us about a major magazine editor who informed his staff that he would fire anyone who entered a contest of any kind.

True innovation will never win awards, because there's no contest category for something that nobody else is doing. And if you foster a culture in which awards lead to promotions and financial rewards, then asking your talented people to invest themselves in anything new is going to look like a bad deal.

Well, I'm in. I'll never enter another press contest. Period. I'll be hosting the national convention of the Press Contest Conscientious Objectors of America in a utility closet at the Charleston Comfort Inn sometime next winter. You're all invited.