When the Oscar nominations were announced a few months ago, I stumbled upon a comment from Kevin Bacon that I think will hit home with most journalists – if we’re honest about all those awards and plaques that hang on the walls in newsrooms across the country.
Some critics had predicted that Bacon would receive a Best Actor’s nod for his role in “The Woodsman,” a powerful movie in which Bacon plays a convicted pedophile struggling to turn his life around after getting out of prison. When the nominations were announced, though, Bacon’s name wasn’t on the list. Asked for his reaction, Bacon was refreshingly honest, and it made me appreciate him even more as a man and as an actor. Bacon admitted he was disappointed when he learned that – once again – his peers in the industry hadn’t recognized his work. This is an actor who a year earlier saw his two co-stars win Oscars for their roles in “Mystic River.” Bacon said the time of the year when nominations are made and winners selected was the “bittersweet season.”
I couldn’t help but see the parallels with our own contest season, which just ended. By now, all the awards in our business have been handed out. The banquets are over, and the plaques have been hung on those newsroom walls. Oscar season is a matter of weeks. Our season stretches for months.
The process starts in early January when editors look through the past year and select the best work. Editors write entry letters so full of praise that you can hardly believe they are describing you and your work. Off the entries go, and with them the hopes of every writer whose name has been typed on the entry form. It’s like when you buy a lottery ticket for a $100 million lottery. You have a chance. And for a few days you think about how you’re gong to spend all that money.
It’s the same thing with the Pulitzer, ASNE, Scripps-Howard, SPJ and all the other regional and state journalism awards. You have a chance. And then the results start trickling in. The bittersweet season is launched in newsrooms around the country. By the time all the awards are announced, we have some people appointed “winners.” If that’s the case, then the rest of us who won nothing must be labeled “losers.”
And who, exactly, calls us losers? We do. Because we’re an insecure group, and let’s be honest about that, too: The awards can play havoc with our emotions and our egos.
There’s a danger in placing too much emphasis on the results of a journalism contest, win or lose. Just because you win doesn’t mean you’re great and don’t have much more to learn. If you didn’t win, that doesn’t mean the work was not great. When we start looking at our work in terms of contest results, it takes us further and further away from what journalism is supposed to be about: Finding great stories in the community and writing them in such a way to inform and move readers and link them with that community.
Young writers – as a rule – don’t seem to get so caught up in the awards mania. They seem grateful to have a job. But at some stage in their career, veteran writers start thinking – perhaps too much – about awards. When that happens, a reporter desperately wants to win.
I’ve seen that desire play out in a couple ways. I’ve heard stories of some writers who early in the year set out to write an award-winning story. They look for the hot issue. They analyze previous winners and try to determine what characteristics make a winning story. Then they set out, sure to win the prize. More often than not, it doesn’t work. During the last few years, I’ve judged numerous journalism contests; state, regional and national. In every pile, the judges and I come across a story – typically a project – that seems to have been written with the sole purpose of winning a prize.
I’ve also had friends on newspapers, both big and small, who have slipped into near depression because they didn’t win an award. And I’m not talking about the big, well-known national awards. One friend still talks about the time he came away with an honorable mention in a statewide contest. It shook his confidence for months. When that happens, it can damage a writer’s self-confidence, the very thing a writer needs to report, structure and ultimately write a story.
For the most part, readers could care less about our awards. Unlike the movies, a newspaper isn’t going to get the famous “Oscar bounce” because a story was a finalist or a winner in a prestigious contest. Readers care about our stories. That’s all.
Years ago I wrote a story on Bill Porter, a door-to-door salesman. The story was reprinted in Reader’s Digest, was featured on ABC’s 20/20 and eventually made into a movie. And no, I didn’t make a dime off it.
The Porter story is one that I am still closely identified with. Each year, I get letters from people who were moved by the story and let me know that it touched them.
But that story didn’t win one award. Nothing: National, regional or state. Did that mean the story didn’t work? That the story wasn’t any good? Not at all. Readers are the ultimate judges. We place too much emphasis on contest wins and losses, forgetting the work itself.
If you happened to win an award this year, that’s great. Congratulations.
If you didn’t, don’t let that bring you down – something that can too easily happen. Keep working. Keep growing.
There’s always next season.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.