The end of the year turns the attention of advisers and students to journalism contests — or at least it should. Veterans in advising, judging and winning share these eight contest tips:
1) GO FOR IT
Michael Koretzky, contest coordinator and SPJ Region 3 director, said the biggest “do” is to enter the categories as a longshot.
“Some of the categories are like the prettiest girl at the high school dance: No one asks her to dance because they think that everyone’s asking her to dance,” Koretzky said. “I’ve judged categories that had only a handful of entries. And I’m thinking, ‘This is a super category; why didn’t people enter?’
“In a category that’s mano a mano, take a flier: Enter, see what happens; you might be surprised.”
2) PLAN EARLY
Robert Buckman advises the University of Louisiana at Lafayette chapter, which was named Region 12’s outstanding chapter at SPJ’s annual Excellence in Journalism conference. He said the most important tips for advisers are to read contest rules carefully (preventing disqualification) and to avoid procrastinating.
“Keep after your people, because they’re not only busy, but they tend to forget,” Buckman said. “If you try to do it at the last minute and you discover that there are contest rules that will require you to have to look something up or get a letter of recommendation, you can’t do that. Coordinate this with your staffs a good month in advance.”
3) SET THE BAR HIGH
Advisers and students should have the contest mindset when assigning stories, not just at submission time.
“I stress to my writing students if a possible story is a future award-winner to take quality seriously even before it’s published,” Buckman said. “Not everything is going to win an award, but if you look at each thing that you write as a potential award-winner, you set your bar high enough that you’re going to win an occasional award.”
4) MULTITASK — AND KEEP RECORDS
Tera Lyons, a senior mass media major, appreciates her classroom experience in media cross-training at Baker University. It paid off in the 2012 Mark of Excellence Awards, with four national wins in online news reporting, online sports reporting and photography. Multimedia class projects provide vital experience and help students enter multiple categories.
“I’ve done work with video, I‘ve done work with pictures, I’ve done online, I’ve done writing, I’ve done editorial,” Lyons said. “Keep a record of everything you’ve done and really highlight work that caught your attention or caught other people’s attention.”
5) PUT YOUR LISTENER/READER/ VIEWER THERE
Walter Storholt won a 2007 national Mark of Excellence Award in radio sports reporting and now does college basketball play-by-play.
His advice for radio students: Weave rich sound throughout your story.
“Find sound to put into little parts of the story, but also to have sound throughout the entire piece — something in the background, something that puts you in the seat if it’s an interview, something that puts you in the arena if it’s a story about a game,” Storholt said. “That could go toward any type of storytelling: Try to put the listener or the reader or the viewer in the location where the story’s taking place.”
6) BE PREPARED
Alex Mowrey, a junior communications major at Slippery Rock University, won three 2012 national Mark of Excellence Awards in photography. He said he is always ready to shoot.
“I have (my camera) with me all of the time, regardless of whether I’m shooting something that day,” he said. “You never know when something interesting is going to happen.” That yields more fruit: experience and improvement.
“The more you shoot the better you’ll get,” he said. “Keep shooting, regardless of what it is.”
Present the final product to the public (if appropriate). Invite corporate executives, university officials, parents and student peers. Discuss the experience.
8) ‘GET DIRTY’
Mowrey added that photographers should not be timid in their work — a philosophy that can apply to reporters, too.
“That’s where a lot of good pictures come from — not being scared to go out and take that picture,” Mowrey said. “Don’t be afraid to get dirty … physically. I always joke with my staff and my adviser: I always end up on the ground taking pictures of something.”
Jimmy McCollum is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He advises Lipscomb’s SPJ chapter and directs the Tennessee High School Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org