Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is There Any Lasting Value in Journalism Awards?

The managing editor of a Roanoke daily newspaper, Michael Stowe, has a column this a.m. (here) talking about all the awards his paper won at last week's Virginia Press Association contest and how ... well, shucks ... it's not really about the awards; it's about serving you wonderful people.

This is one of those column types that ranks up there in the annals of clichedom with "It's that time of year again ..." and "Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains ...". It is worn out, but unlike most cliches, it doesn't have that strong ring of truth. Competitions among news people, in my opinion, represent the seamy side of the industry and I, for one, don't want to have anything to do with them. I won a number of VPA awards in the past, but that was years ago, before the dark underbelly of cheating and a warped sense of professional values intruded.

Consider this: The VPA yesterday handed out 771 awards and had 3,140 entries. That's seven hundred seventy-one awards! In one night. Of all those, the one that resonates with any lasting credibility, I think, is for integrity and community service. One of those three--based on size--was for my pal Anne Adams' Monterey Recorder up in Highland County and I can vouch for Anne deserving recognition on an annual basis for her morality. I can also vouch for the fact that Anne does it her way.

Stowe makes his case thusly: "Our biggest reward and the goal of our newsroom is reporting stories that resonate and make a difference in this community. In other words, we shouldn't pursue a story because we think it may win a contest ... We believe that the newsroom benefits--by increasing credibility with readers and sources and boosting employee morale--when the quality of our work is recognized outside the community. And readers gain, too, because the competitions push us to constantly improve our journalism and make sure it holds up against our industry peers."

It would seem to me that each publication needs to be its own judge, using its own measures to "make sure it holds up," not so much against other pubs, but against its own values. I don't like rigid uniformity in my profession because it inhibits innovation and keeps journalism boxed in a system of values and standards created for another age. I don't want journalists from West Virginia or Pennsylvania (judges are generally from other states) telling me if my work is good or bad, because I should determine that based on the goals of my publication. When you standardize, you get a sameness that is great in Holiday Inns, lousy in publications.

Stowe makes a point that his paper won "more than two dozen awards" in the contest, putting a premium on numbers, but didn't tell you it didn't win any of the most important awards: Mims for editorial leadership in the community or the valued public service award. Its "two dozen" awards didn't win the sweepstakes category, best in show or (for its various properties) any of the specialty awards.

Granted, some good work was recognized, but did any of the winners learn anything about their work that they either didn't know or find valuable? I doubt it. My own experience in this would underscore that feeling.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was at the Blue Ridge Business Journal and we were still entering contests, we drew a blank from the VPA because, an official told me, our tabloid size threw off the judges and they "didn't quite know how to judge you." Lordgodawmighty! What the hell would those judges think of a 6"X10" glossy magazine like Valley Business FRONT? The very next year another judge said, in effect, that the BJ had hung the moon. Our size, stories, design and intent were essentially the same as the year before, but this judge thought we were "innovative, creative and far ahead of the field ... blah, blah, blah."

Who were we to believe? How about ourselves? We'd agreed with the second judge all along and our readers tended to agree with him, too, based on our feedback from the people who read us with an almost religious fervor. But that wasn't the point. We found ourselves feeling put out by an issue of absolutely no value. With or without those awards, we knew who we were and were happy with it. Based on what we saw as a daily newspaper bias, a couple of cheating scandals, strong disagreement with the organization's self-interested political stances (and one VPA internal issue we won't get into), we decided it would be in our best interest to vacate the VPA.

Stowe says that staff morale is a benefit of contests. I would suggest that if a publication doesn't have strong morale because it values its people and treats them with dignity and respect, a few VPA awards aren't going to do it for them. Frankly, I think that line of reasoning is a form of bullshit that helps managers avoid the hard part of their job: managing with sense of the value of the individual.

Newspapers are a dying breed engaged in their final bleats and pleas of self-importance so thoroughly characterized by telling you how many awards they won last week.


  1. Oh, come on, Dan. You're letting your bitterness against "a Roanoke daily" get the best of you when you write: "Stowe makes a point that his paper won 'more than two dozen awards' in the contest, putting a premium on numbers, but didn't tell you it didn't win any of the most important awards: Mims for editorial leadership in the community or the valued public service award."

    Number one: The Roanoke Times won the public service award in 2008 and 2007. It's expecting a lot to think we ought to win it every single year or it's some sort of failure. Number two: The Roanoke Times isn't even eligible for the Mims award: "The Mims competition is for individual writers of editorials, signed commentaries or editorial page columns at a non-daily or specialty publication of any size or a daily publication with circulation of 40,000 or less."

    Try to be fair, friend.

  2. Dan: Your declining circulation numbers will soon make you eligible Mims. I keep hearing this "bitterness" stuff and it simply ain't so, sir. I dislike much about The Times' management, but I appreciate the good people--including you (and Michael Stowe from what I know of him personally)--who work there and give it your all on a daily basis, in spite of morale that would make a retreating army look cheerful. The Mims is not the point of this post, in any case: it's about what these competitions cause reporters and editors to do that is not in the best interest of the reader. You can disagree or agree, but "bitterness" does not figure into this. I am free of the yoke of the RT and am thrilled beyond imagining to that end, but that, too, is beside the point. The point once again: these awards don't do the product or the producer any good.

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  4. Dan, you say you're not bitter, but your first comment to me says something else entirely to most readers.

    I don't really want to hash this out on a public forum, though. I've got more respect for you as a person and a friend than that.

  5. Dan: I'm not sure how a joke about declining circulation (10,000 in the last year) is going to be construed as bitterness, but I'll take your word for it that you see it that way. This has probably gone as far as it needs to in this forum, as you said, but I'll see you at an awards ceremony Friday where we're competitors. I hope you win.

  6. Congratulations, Dan, on your Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition award. It was well-deserved.

    See - sometimes awards do mean something. ;-)