Contests have been part of my journalism career since before it started. In college, one of the highlights of the year was a competition in which students from around California gathered to not only compare work done in school but to take part in on-site writing and photography duels. My student newspaper, the Daily Titan of California State University, Fullerton, came away with its share of awards and everyone had a great time mingling with fellow students. Fueled by a passion for the First Amendment and dangerous amounts of alcohol, these collegiate journalism pow-wows sent us away pumped up to do even better when we got back to our respective campus newspapers.
At my first reporting job there were more contests to enter, but this time on a supposedly professional level. The one award I won, which was for “Best Story and Photos by a Single Person,” still hangs on my wall. It was from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the geniuses in charge of the competition got the title of my article wrong on the plaque. I guess there are no awards for plaque-making.
That was 10 years ago and since then my career has gone through a contest drought. I attended the Nevada Press Association annual dinner last year, at which the awards were presented for the prior contest year, but since I was brand new at the Tribune I didn’t consider myself a participant. It was a fancy affair at the Harrah’s Automobile Museum, complete with cocktails and nice food and a guest speaker who won a Pulitzer Prize. When they handed out the contest awards, the emcee tore through the names of the winners as brief glimpses of the winning entries flashed on a big screen. I wish I could sit here now and say that each piece that took home a prize was a noble piece of journalism, but since the awards presentation was like watching the lightning round of a game show, I really don’t know.
Looking through the Tribune’s entries for this year was a much more meticulous process, however, and I did have time to examine most of the pieces with a careful eye. To a degree I trusted my memory or the reporter’s judgment on what to enter in the contest, but since I had to whittle down the list it gave me a chance to do some evaluation on the work we had done over the past year. When I did so, I admittedly did it with a critical eye. It should have been the time to focus on all the good things we have done at the paper over the past year, and for sure there have been a number of things of which we can be proud. We have hit upon some important local issues, from homelessness to business to public safety to justice, and we have greatly improved the look of the printed paper. We have been able to have better local content with some harder work and help from a group of very talented journalism students from UNR.
Maybe I just have a big, fat swath of pessimism running through me, but despite all those good things my brain spent an equal amount of time wondering, “What did we miss?” or “What did we do wrong?” or, more importantly, “What could we have done better?” Even as I approved clips for contest entry, I saw things that I’d go back and edit or about which I’d get more information. I wished I had time or that the rules would allow me to go back and fill in the gaps, make corrections and then send the articles in for judging.
Even though part of me says, “I didn’t get into this business to win awards, I want to do a good job for myself and my readers and that’s all,” another part of me wonders if the secret genius of these competitions is to get us to re-examine our own work so we can improve.
I got into this business because in high school I got hooked on the high that comes with reporting a good, informative story. Even though the effect of that high has dulled some over time, I still get it. With the daily grind of filling the paper, though, the good highs come around less frequently and often go unnoticed as I plow through completing another day’s edition. So, maybe these competitions are a way for older journalists to keep their buzz going, though any seasoned journalist knows that the liquor companies are the most responsible for the buzz that keeps us sane after years in the business.
The awards will be presented in September in Mesquite, Nev., and whether we come home with lots of awards or none, the experience of entering has taught me that any time we publish an article or photograph or advertisement, it would help to keep this contest in mind. On those average days when I want to just push an article through and get it written and edited and published so I can leave, I need to think forward and imagine going back over the past year to evaluate what I’ve done.
When entering the contest next year, I want to look at our work and see that more often we didn’t miss anything, we didn’t do anything wrong, we asked the right questions and we did the absolute best we could. I know we have done pretty well, but we can do better. You readers deserve it and as journalists we expect it of ourselves.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.