Come 2021, it’s a safe bet some of the stories, web graphics, podcasts and editorial cartoons about COVID-19 will be honored with awards. The virus has spawned a crush of good journalism, and while such awards aren’t the highest priority, they can be important to a team’s morale.
While some organizations make awards preparation a last-minute scramble, others get a head start by keeping tabs on potential submissions throughout the year.
“We open the door for a lot of self-nominating,” said Alicia Zuckerman, editorial director at radio station WLRN in Miami, Florida. Zuckerman said her team maintains a Slack channel called “awardworthy” and is constantly soliciting additions to it. “At any time, anybody can put one of their own stories into that Slack channel, and very often they put their colleagues’ stories in, which is nice, because it’s also a way of colleagues celebrating each other’s work as it happens, in real time.”
Zuckerman said her station has, for a couple of years, employed an “awards coordinator,” who is not a reporter or producer with the station, to handle all the entries (in additional to doing other tasks around the newsroom).
That’s a luxury not many stations have. In most places, the job falls to people like Molly Jirasek, former assistant news director at Heart of Illinois ABC in Peoria. Jirasek said at many stations like hers, it becomes a “second job” to submit awards and takes managers away from some of the station’s day-to-day reporting functions. She said that it’s also important how newsrooms archive their work.
“When you see a story that you are really proud of, or a newscast, make sure you download and save it right away in high quality,” Jirasek said. “A lot of stations’ archiving systems only last for a short amount of time, and I think to the judges, it makes a huge difference to see the product in its full form.”
WHAT TO SUBMIT?
Want to have a tough, but honest conversation with your co-workers? Have a news meeting where the team decides how to spend what’s usually a limited awards budget. It’s good practice — and not just to learn budgeting. It helps teach reporters to speak tactfully about the pluses and minuses of
their co-workers’ (and bosses’) work, and it brings into sharper relief both what a news organization excels at and where it may be lagging.
“One of the things that I see as a weakness for us sometimes is that our set isn’t as flashy as other sets,” Jirasek said. “And especially in stuff like the newscast category, since our graphics package is a little limited and our studio is a little limited, sometimes I am more reserved about submitting stuff for that. Because you want stuff that you feel like is likely to win.”
Zuckerman said her shop tends to try to get as many different journalists’ names on award entries as possible — a way to potentially spread the wealth. But first, the work has to fit the contest.
“I think the first thing you have to do — this is so simple, I know — is you have to look at the contest rules very, very carefully,” said Pat Beall, Gannett and USA Today’s senior investigative reporter for the Southeast region. “I have talked my stories out of being submitted for certain contests, because I felt so strongly that they were not going to be competitive. And at the same time, I have argued other reporters into entering a contest.”
Managing editor of Kansas-based The Journal, Chris Green said, “I think for something to be contest-worthy, it requires inputs that go above and beyond just typical high-quality reporting, writing, editing, photography and design.” Green is the only full-time staffer on his team, though he works with a cadre of contractors to put out the quarterly publication (which is affiliated with the Kansas Leadership Center, a civic education nonprofit based in Wichita). “There’s got to be something special there,” he said.
For Green, judging how special (or award-worthy) a story is rests on the answers to a few key questions:
“What did your story actually do? What was the response to it? What sort of conversations did it spark and where did it spark those conversations? We want to see things that show that our work matters and do stories that have some sort of impact on society around us,” Green said.
WHERE TO ENTER?
Sometimes, contests may not seem to gel with the publications that want to enter them.
“We kinda have to think carefully about whether we’re really a good fit for [a particular] contest,” Green said. He notes The Journal hasn’t seen much success in the National Magazine Awards, for instance.
“That feels like a competition that’s really geared toward much larger publications than ours,” he said. Though The Journal did win a national Sigma Delta Chi award (given by Quill’s publisher, the Society of Professional Journalists) for a 2018 story about rural water issues in Kansas.
Another challenge in an age of multiplatform news is whether a news organization is allowed to enter all the competitions it might wish to. Green’s advice? Try anyway.
The first time The Journal sought the University of Kansas’s Burton W. Marvin Kansas News Enterprise Award, “The response we got back from the contest was ‘Well, we think you guys are doing some great stuff, but this is an award that is restricted to newspapers,” Green said.
So he wrote to the contest’s organizers asking for reconsideration.
“They changed the rules, and we won the competition the next year,” Green said. “Being willing to advocate for yourself and willing to try new competitions that you may not have been invited to or considered for before is an interesting strategy to branch out from where you’re currently at.”
Now, he says his team tries to find at least one new competition a year to enter, both to earn recognition and build the news brand, but also to keep an eye on what contests exist — a task that’s not always easy. With so many state, regional and national prizes, the landscape is different everywhere. Green, for instance, can enter the Burton Marvin competition. But his staff would be locked out of competing with Jirasek’s for the Silver Dome awards, given out by the Illinois Broadcasters Association.
Wikipedia maintains a list of many notable journalism prizes, but it’s hardly comprehensive.
Each of those awards may have a different significance, implied or otherwise. Part of a news manager’s job is to gauge which ones seem particularly meaningful to others in the organization
If a reporter has never won anything before, even a second- or third-place certificate from the state broadcasters association may mean a great deal to him or her. In the same newsroom, there may also be reporters who have boxes of plaques collecting dust in their basement and who can’t bear to eat one more chicken dinner at a ceremony. And then there’s what management thinks, which can also vary greatly between organizations.
MORALE BUILDERS AND VALIDATION
But maybe the most meaningful part of an award is what winning one can do for morale, especially in an age when journalists are labeled “enemies of the people” by the White House.
“I’ve heard [reporters] say ‘maybe if we won some awards, it would make people feel better or get people motivated in the newsroom,” Jirasek said about one of her previous stations.
“You go back and you may have forgotten how much good work you did,” Beall said. “It’s a good way to get reminded of some of what you did that might have escaped your mind if you didn’t have a reason to go back and focus on it.”
“I think one of the interesting things about being a journalist in this day and age is how many different sources of validation there are now,” Green said. “From clicks to comments to shares, and all sorts of metrics that you can use to determine whether or not people are responding to the content you put out. What I think is special about awards is the different kind of validation that it offers — that it says something about how you’re impacting your community or how you’re impacting your state in a way that feels a little more permanent than how many people are reading a story. It sort of gets at a deeper purpose of doing journalism.”
WLRN’s Zuckerman said her team sometimes pays for duplicate copies of an award to be made, so the newsroom and the journalists who earned the honor can all have their own copy (warning at the same time that this can quickly eat into an awards budget).
Beall agrees awards can perk up a team but cautions any journalist from reading too much into them.
“You get to feel good about yourself for 15 minutes — all of 15 minutes — before it’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’ I do have an acquaintance who won a Pulitzer, and he said it was good for 72 hours.”
MAKING AWARDS BETTER
Awards season is also a good time for journalists to practice their skeptical eye — asking tough questions about whether the prizes can better reflect the varied work journalists now do. Beall said that as the business has changed in the 21st century, she believes some contests have struggled to keep up.
“The award categories for beat reporting seem to have remained somewhat more static,” she said. “What if, instead of three stories, you could enter a combination of three elements? It could be a Facebook Live plus two stories; it could be a digital element and a story and a Facebook Live. I would like to see the asked-for material be more reflective of what’s being asked of reporters out there.”
Many contests group news outlets by staff size, market size or circulation, but Beall said each of those has become less meaningful in recent years, in terms of judging the kind of work a particular organization is doing.
Green said he’d like contests to be more open-minded about including publications like his that don’t fit a traditional mold.
“We don’t really have a peer publication that we can put ourselves up against. We’re a magazine, but we have some aspects of us that are a little more akin to a newspaper,” he said.
So for The Journal, it’d help with benchmarking. But in a broader sense, rewarding good journalism and making such accolades public is important for the industry in a time of increasing public skepticism. Still, even Green concedes it’s possible to have so many ways to win that prestige can be diluted.
“It can so disperse the competition that awards can be less meaningful if you’re not competing against as many people as you
could be,” Green said. “It’s to our advantage to have different categories that we can be eligible for, but in the end, we need rational categories that allow the best journalism to come up and be honored.”
Another way to make awards more impactful? By getting more people to serve as judges.
It’s often tough to find all the eyes and ears necessary to judge all the contests each year. Award coordinators regularly send multiple emails and cajole reporters and editors into participating. There’s usually no compensation involved, and those journalists are already busy. So frequently the time necessary must be taken from one’s personal hours, outside of work.
But Zuckerman (who’s also the current board president of the Public Media Journalists Association, which hosts a national contest for public broadcasters each year) said there are knock-on benefits to newsrooms whose personnel volunteer.
“I would advise people to volunteer as judges if they can, because the more of other people’s work we expose ourselves to, the better journalists we’re going to become,” Zuckerman said. “Whether it’s encountering something that we didn’t think of before that is a great approach, or encountering something that maybe feels a little cliché and we want to be reminded to avoid.”
WHAT TO DO IF (WHEN) YOU DON’T WIN
Of course, not everyone can win.
“Judging itself is subjective,” Zuckerman said. “We can feel really good about winning awards, but it’s not the be-all-and-endall because in the end it was one person or a couple people’s opinion about a piece. And sometimes things are so close — even as a judge, sometimes pieces are so close it’s really, really hard to say ‘OK, this one wins over this one.’”
“Some of the most important stories that we did at the [Palm Beach, Florida] Post were the stories that did not win the biggest awards, but they absolutely made fundamental change in our community,” Beall said.
Still, everyone interviewed for this story had the same message: Stories should never be done simply because they might win awards. Processes may change that cause a newsroom to win more awards in the future, but the point is making the everyday product better.
“I hope anyone who’s a young journalist who reads the article can take away that this job is not about awards,” Jirasek said. “And if that’s what it is for you, you probably shouldn’t be doing journalism, because it’s really about serving the public and doing that to the best of our ability every day, whether or not you get recognized for it.”
STAN JASTRZEBSKI has won more than 40 professional awards in a 15-year journalism career, including five regional Edward R. Murrow awards and three national plaques from the Public Media Journalists Association (formerly PRNDI). His work has appeared on NPR, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio New Zealand and ABC Radio.
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