Fall convention and awards season for college media is officially in the books, after the annual conference closed up shop in D.C. last week. ACP’s Pacemaker winners, CMA’s Pinnacle winners and the media convention’s best of show provided the student publications with a chance to strut their stuff and get recognized for their hard work.
When I posted the Pacemaker list a month or so ago, I got a few messages here and there from folks about “awards season.” They can be boiled down to a few simple thoughts:
- You seem to hate awards even as you worked for places that won boatloads of them. What gives?
- It’s great for the people who won, sure, but we lost. This sucks.
I never liked awards much, even when we were winning them, because they don’t mean what people think they mean. Even worse, administrators placed far too high of a value on them, equating award-winning publications with valuable publications. I watched as my students fell under that assumption as well, with the concept of “must-win” casting millstones around their necks and dragging them down into fear and anxiety.
The most vivid convention memory I have is one in which we were up for a major national award. My editor, a young woman with a brilliant track record and an impeccable intellect, sat quietly in the ballroom with me and several staffers. As the announcer began to read off names of winners and “not-quite winners,” I saw her hunched over, almost in pain as she rocked back and forth mumbling something. A student later told me, he heard her saying, “Please… Please… Please…” over and over again.
When our school was announced as a winner, she managed to straighten up and walk up to the front like a newborn deer that was just gaining its legs. She produced a wan smile for the photographer who shot a grip-and-grin image, and she retreated to spot in the audience. She smiled for about three seconds and then said, “What happens if we don’t win NEXT year?” The moment was over. It was already about doing it again.
This isn’t a one-off thing either. A good friend of mine mentioned that he still occasionally feels the sting of being the “one who broke the streak” when it came to winning his state’s “College Paper of the Year” contest. He’s in his 30s, he has a wife and a kid and he lives a wonderful life. Still, it’s the one that got away.
When it comes to contests, I’ve been on all three sides of this: The person putting in for an award, the person judging who should get an award and the person running an organization that needs to provide the awards. With that background, I’ve been able to tell students something that they don’t want to hear, that never seems to make the loss any better and that still is accurate in every way possible:
“Awards are great things and you should be proud to win one. However, they aren’t the end-all and be-all of life. These contests border on being entirely random when it comes to what makes the cut and what doesn’t, so when you win something, you should be honored, but don’t let it get to your head. When you don’t win something, you should NOT let it make you feel inferior, as there’s often more at play than just who did the best work.”
Michael Koretzky, a longtime journalist, student-media adviser and contest judge, laid out his “Confessions of Journalism Contest Judge” about a year ago. I’m not 100% in agreement with him on everything here, but he covers a lot of the angles when it comes to looking behind the curtain and seeing the great and powerful Oz is actually just a regular guy.
Before you read on, this isn’t meant to denigrate places that win stuff or give you a bunch of excuses if you don’t win. Sometimes, other people are just better or we just don’t make the cut. I’d like to think that everything we sent was gold, but if I had to be fair about it, when we lost, we probably deserved to lose. (And if I wanted to be even fairer, we probably won a few times when we shouldn’t have.)
The reason I’m opening this can of worms is because I see the devastated look on students’ faces too often after they don’t win stuff like this. They can’t distinguish between “My entry wasn’t good enough to win this year” and “I personally suck and should go die in a fire somewhere.” No matter what advisers say or what professors say or even what Mom says about you being just as good and just as gifted, it’s hard to see things that way when someone else is hoisting the hardware.
Here’s a look at a few key things that should help you feel not so bad about not winning awards for your hard work:
Showcase Editions on Steroids: I read a book once in which the author referred to the Russian concept of pokazuka, a slang term that means “just for show.” The idea dated back to the Potemkin villages and the tours of them that Catherine the Great used to take. To puff up their status, restaurants would cram their menus with foods that they didn’t have, farms would be quickly put into the wasteland to showcase unreal agriculture and everyone wore their Sunday best like it was common. This impressed the great leader and she marveled at her kingdom. When she left, the place went back to the same craphole it always was.
A lot of publications rely on pokazuka when it comes to contests. For example, one convention’s “best of show” required that the schools enter their most recent copy of the paper. Naturally, everyone knew when the convention was, so some papers would save the big features, the photo essays, the double-truck spreads and more for that issue.
Then, if you were really lucky, an administrator would resign, someone would crash a car on campus or some other form of insane entropy would occur while you were working on the paper: Bam! Breaking news gets added to the mix. When my livelihood came down to winning these things, we’d run multi-section papers, full color and insane graphics projects. My feature class always had a feature or two that was insanely long or good (or hopefully both) and we’d dump that in there as well. It turned out OK in many cases and even better in others.
Thus, rest assured, it wasn’t that your regular Tuesday paper wasn’t good enough. You just didn’t feed it enough steroids.
Making it rain: It’s not always about the quality of your entry, but rather the quantity of your entries.
For one contest, (again, back when my livelihood depended on such things) I found that we could enter the main event for X dollars: Send your five best papers and see if you win the big prize. However, with that X dollars, you were able to enter a certain number of individual entries for free as well, such as best news story, best front-page design, best column and so forth. If you wanted to enter more than that, it was like two bucks per entry. I started doing the math and I realized that I could do a hell of a lot of entering at that nominal rate.
I would require the upper editors to come to the newsroom on one Saturday before the deadline and we would spend all day there finding entries, pasting them up (pre-digital stuff) and signing forms. I’d buy lunch and dinner because it usually took about 13 to 16 hours to do all of it, but in the end, we’d have hundreds of entries.
It wasn’t that I was entering crap, but I stopped debating the minor merits of Entry Candidate A as opposed to those of Entry Candidate B. I just sent them both, as well as Candidates C through Z. It was like the Lazlo Approach to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes in “Real Genius:”
In other words, just keep shooting and eventually you’ll hit. And we did. Bigly.
I can’t remember what the record overall was, but we swept through categories like Grant going through Richmond, often taking first through third and all three honorable mentions. In other cases, we might only grab one honorable mention, but it was still an award and it still meant something to a kid who earned it.
I couldn’t be certain that people weren’t just giving us an award because we had so damned many entries in each area and they felt a duty to give us SOMETHING. After all, it might have backfired on us if our massive presence meant people got annoyed. However, it didn’t seem to go that way, as we won more and more each year I did it.
So, you might be competing with a maniac out there like this, who essentially wipes out a forest of redwoods and overburdens the postal service with the idea of making it rain on a contest.
You hit into the shift: Baseball used to be relatively simple in terms of infield play: Two people on the left of second base, two on the right. Now, thanks to moneyball and advanced metrics, almost every pro game features more shifting than a fat guy trying to get comfortable in an airplane seat. You get three on the left or the right. You get right fielder playing like a deep roving second baseman. If they could let the peanut vendor stand to the left of the first baseman, I’d imagine we’d see that, too.
Thus, what used to be hits aren’t hits anymore. You essentially get unlucky in some truly unfair ways. That said, sometimes you get lucky and the shift benefits you, like when a left-handed power hitter accidentally check-swings a double down the left-field line while everyone on Earth (including the peanut vendor) is crowded on the right side of the diamond.
For example, one national convention tried to prevent people from steroiding up their editions for entry, so they set it up that you had to submit a certain number of issues from certain time periods. In one case, they kept those time periods so consistent that people could do the “steroids” thing and just pour resources into those papers during those time periods and then cycle off for another month or two. However, what tended to happen was that a few people got fortunate and other people got unfortunate. That giant scandal you covered for five weeks that brought down an administration? Yeah. Wrong weeks. The National Championship your school won, which you covered in glowing visual and graphic detail? Wrong weeks.
However, for some people, the ball bounced the other way: Their big stories synced up beautifully with the selected weeks and they get lucky as hell.
Luck plays a pretty big role in some of these things…
The Greg Maddux Theory of Being Great: Reputation matters an unfortunate amount when it comes to contests. That’s not to say that the reputations are unearned or that those are the only reasons why people from “Name Programs” win stuff, but reputations add a lot to the mix.
It’s a lot like when Greg Maddux used to pitch in the majors. He established himself as a guy who was always able to throw the ball EXACTLY where he wanted and that he was always able to hit the corners of the plate. He earned the reputation fair and square. However, Maddux didn’t ALWAYS hit the corner on every pitch. However, since he had the reputation of always throwing strikes, the umps gave him the benefit of the doubt and called a lot of balls strikes, thus making Maddux happy and pissing off the rest of the league.
The unfortunate comparative here is that when the “Name Programs” enter contests, they get the benefit of the doubt. They get the second look. They get the, “Oh, that’s OK” pass on a minor misstep here or there. They also get judges thinking they’re seeing something “groundbreaking” when it really might just be crap.
I worked at a couple of the “best” schools when it came to writers and designers and we had some great kids. However, the truth is that we had just as many kids who couldn’t find their asses with two hands and a flashlight as anywhere else. We had kids who designed pages that looked like a ransom note mated with a Rorschach test. We had kids who wrote narrative leads that sounded like they were conceived on acid. Still, having that “Name Program” rep got their work a second look.
In one case of judging, I was picking through publications to see who would make the cut for a collection of national awards. As Koretzky noted, a lot of the first pass is about skimming out stuff that’s not good, so my job was to eliminate stuff before a group of us would come together to and debate the merits of what was left. I kept tossing the ones that didn’t make the cut on the floor next to me and eventually the contest coordinators came by to scoop them up.
At one point, one of them picked up a paper and handed it to the other with a worried look. They both murmured something like, “Uh.. Uh-oh…” I asked what the problem was and they said, “Well, this paper ALWAYS wins an award so we’re just surprised…”
OK, but that year it sucked and I started laying out why I thought it wasn’t going to make it. They both backed off immediately, but as they walked away, I heard one of them say something to the effect of how upset the adviser at that publication was going to be.
Part of me wanted to give it another look because I started to doubt myself, even though I knew I was right. The other part of me got pissed that I was second-guessing myself because of the reputation other people had conferred upon this publication. It stayed out of the stack, but that bugged me. And it still does.
Judges are human… : The word “judge” seems to communicate fairness, clarity, wisdom and more. For most of the media contests, however, the word “judge” seems to translate to “person who answered the email plea for help.” Koretzky does more than an adequate job of going over this, so I won’t belabor it here. What I will talk about is the ways in which human failings can lead you to miss out on the prize you covet.
We get tired, so we might glaze over an error that should have bounced out a competitor or we might glaze over while reading your amazing prose. We can get grumpy about something in particular that leads us to be overly harsh in making the first cut. (Personal beef: I hate verb-noun attributions. When I see them I start to twitch. I try to push past it in judging contest entries, but it does take a toll. I know I’m not the only one with a personal gripe that can nudge something to the “pitch” pile.)
We also don’t all have the same experiences, which can lead to vastly different readings of pieces. Case in point: I was judging a pro contest with two other people and we individually needed to pull our personal finalists that we would then debate as a group. In the column-writing category, the best column out of the entire pack, in my opinion, was this one that reflected on how getting the one thing you always wanted sometimes was more about the memories it created than the item itself.
The guy who wrote it was in his mid-50s and he used the analogy of how he and his brothers begged for Electric Football for Christmas.
His parents kept saying no, but eventually they relented and that Christmas was a joyful one. However, it went beyond that to explain how that game and that joy and that experience became their sibling touchstone for years to come.
For me, it was the slam-dunk winner. For the other two people? It didn’t even make it out of the junk pile.
“I never heard of this stupid game,” one judge said. “Why would people watch little plastic guys vibrate on a table?”
The other judge added, “Did kids really play with that?”
Um… YES! It was the greatest game on Earth at the time and it was something we all desperately wanted. Even if it wasn’t, it was more of a metaphor for the connectivity of siblings. Hell, even I knew that and I was an only child. Still, the more I tried to explain this, the less they seemed to see the value in it.
Another point was why didn’t the kids just go out and buy it themselves? Well, because not all of us were rich, so we had to beg for stuff for Christmas.
It was clear that my experiences didn’t match theirs and it was an impediment in the judging process.
The column didn’t win first prize, but with a lot of argumentation, it made the top five.
…And occasionally biased as hell: In some cases, judges play favorites. This can be because they know a program, they worked some place or they are friends with an adviser. The converse can also be true, if a program, place or adviser really pissed off the judge. We do our best to ignore those things and if we’re really ethical, we spend a lot of time trying to make sure we don’t fall into that trap.
In college media, a lot of state contests get judged by people who used to be in student media, so they carry those battle scars with them. If you think I’m kidding, ask someone who worked for the Daily Cardinal what they think about the Badger Herald. These two papers competed as dailies at UW-Madison for decades and if you find someone in his or her 30s, 50s or 70s today who worked on one side of the newspaper war, they STILL hold grudges.
I also know that when I needed judges, I always went to former students who were currently in the field. At first, this made sense because they’re pros, they tend to owe me a favor and I can hold their feet to the fire in case they let the thing slide. However, in retrospect, I wondered if the judges held on to little biases based on how snotty bigger schools had been to them or been more open minded when it came to schools like the ones they attended.
That can make for some difficult judging decisions.
Then there are cases like this one that I experienced on a “shared judging” assignment:
We were looking at high school papers to determine which ones would be finalists for a set of national awards. Again, the goal was to cut down the stack to a predetermined number so that a bunch of us could debate the merits of the survivors. The rule was each person got say over a specific stack. If they had a concern, they could call in another judge for help, but it was basically one person’s say and that was that.
Another judge came by and looked at my stack of rejects. “What’s this one doing in here?” he demanded.
I told him it didn’t make the cut and that I had others that were better and that’s about it.
He stormed off in a huff and I heard him loudly talking to the contest coordinator about this. How he knew the adviser and she was a friend of his and how this was CLEARLY a judging error and on and on…
The contest coordinator asked a second judge to give this a second look. The judge concurred with my opinion that, no, it wasn’t horrible, but it didn’t make the cut and that it wasn’t as good as the others she had seen in her stacks (or assumed were in mine).
The guy then flew into a series of histrionics about how unfair this was and how neither of us understood the greatness of this school’s program and on and on. The next day, they had a THIRD judge read it, who was a friend of both the coordinator and the apoplectic judge. He said that it would just be better if we moved it into the “finalists” stack.
Which they did.
The kicker was that after all that, this judge STILL wasn’t satisfied because not only did it deserve finalist status, in his estimation, but it deserved one of the awards we were giving out. That’s when I put my foot down and basically said to the coordinator, “Look, there is no way this thing is a winner. We had TWO judges look at it and it wasn’t even supposed to get this far. Now that we jury-rigged the system to get it this far, you think we should go even a step further?”
After I threatened to name names on all this in public, it remained just a “finalist.”
I haven’t been asked to judge that contest since.