The envelope, please
By Al Diamon
Created Sep 26 2007 - 6:17pm
September 26, 2007
I like to win awards as much as the next egomaniac. But I've never bought into the idea that submitting my work to a panel of judges in some other state - people with no knowledge or understanding of the issues and personalities of importance to Maine - was a credible method of determining how well I was doing my job.
Journalism contests are almost always overseen by arbiters operating without any context. I know. On several occasions, I've been one of those clueless clods trying to figure out if the public in some place I'd never heard of was better served by a story about bank robberies or one about an infestation of soy mites.
Here's how my fellow judges and I solved that conundrum: We took a wild guess. We figured every place has banks (and bank robbers), but only some places have soy (and, presumably, soy mites). So, we awarded first place to the agricultural story and made the crime piece runner-up.
Afterwards, I felt uneasy about this arbitrary method of dispensing merit. Then, I talked to other judges in other contests. They all said that in lots of cases, they'd had to wing it, because there was no other way of assessing whether the stories that had been submitted were of any importance to the news consumer back where they originated.
From these experiences, I've concluded that most journalism awards are bunk. The only reason these trophies continue to be handed out is because news executives enjoy going to their conventions and accepting them, even though those executives had virtually nothing to do with producing the stories that won. To assure that all these executives get an opportunity to stand on the podium and thank their friends and family (who also had nothing to do with the winning entries), organizations that hand out awards create dozens of categories (Best News Story, Best Long News Story, Best Really, Really Long News Story), to improve the odds that everybody will get a turn in the spotlight. That's just smart marketing. Winners are more likely than losers to sign up for next year's convention.
Cynical? Well, yeah. But that doesn't change the fact that winning awards has nothing to do with producing quality journalism. Most reporters know that. Most editors and publishers don't. They act as if plaques on the newsroom wall validated their existence.
For a classic example, check out the comment made by Jeannine Guttman, editor and vice president of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, in a Sept. 26 story about her papers winning 22 awards from the New England Associated Press News Executives Association.
"As a newspaper," Guttman is quoted as saying, "our mission is to provide our readers with the highest-quality journalism possible. These awards tell us we're on the right track."
If that's so, why is circulation declining?
The only true judges of the quality of journalism produced by any news organization are its readers, viewers, listeners or visitors. Focusing too much on winning trophies and not enough on winning over the local news audience leads to delusions of grandeur.
And lots of really, really long stories.
Al Diamon was once chosen by the Libertarian Party of Maine as the best journalist of the year. And the worst journalist of the year. In the same year. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.