This time of year, the calendar fills up with requests from all corners of the country to help select the best of the best in student media. Numerous states have active college media organizations that offer statewide contests for everything from best overall newspaper to best blog. To determine which students and universities take home the prizes, media advisers look to folks like me (read: the kind of people who can’t say no) to grab a category or 12 and make some choices for them.
I’ve been on all sides of this situation. I have entered items in media competitions for myself and for my students over the years. I ran the contest portion of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association for a couple years. I have also judged more of these than I can remember. There are days when I get a “Can you judge the XXXX State College Contest?” email and I think, “Wait, didn’t I already do that one this year?”
With all of that in mind, here are a few observations I’ve come up with as well as some helpful hints and ideas for next time, if things didn’t pan out as well as you would have liked:
THE “RHESUS MONKEY” SUGGESTIONS: Over the years, there have been a number of ways in which people explained how simple something was. For example, Geico famously did its “So easy a caveman could do it” commercials, milking this concept to the point that some network executive thought an entire sitcom based on the premise would be awesome. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)
The one I tend to use comes from “Argo,” where John Goodman’s character explains the subtle nuances of becoming a film director:
Based on that simple premise, here are a few “Rhesus-Monkey-level” suggestions that can drastically improve your chances of doing well in these things:
- Make the damned deadline: We work in a field in which deadlines are the difference between information life and death, so it always amazes me when people in this field can’t make deadlines for contests. A colleague of mine is putting together a high school contest and got an earful from an adviser who somehow managed to miss the deadline by at least a day. When my colleague declined to process the entries, the adviser groused non-stop about the fairness of the process. Look, you know every year when this is going to happen and it never really changes, so how is this unfair? Even more, if it’s something that matters to you, you always manage to make the time to make it happen.
- Follow the damned directions: Some judges love to disqualify pieces to cut down on the number of entries they have to review. If a category says a piece should have no more than 1,000 words, they gleefully scan the longer pieces to kill anything 1,001 words long or longer. The rest of us, however, tend to have a little bit of empathy and some common sense when it comes to these directions on the categories. Still, we can’t look the other way when violations are completely ridiculous.
Case in point: I was judging a broadcast contest that required the videos to be no more than 5 minutes in length. At least 25% of them violated that rule by more than a minute with two of them more than doubling the time allotment. I asked the contest coordinator about this and she told me they all knew the rules and that violating them would lead to disqualification. Thus, some of the better pieces got bounced.
Directions are simple in most cases, so read them and abide by them. It will at least keep you in play.
- Read the damned descriptions: If I have to look back at a category’s description more than twice while reading your piece to see what it was you were supposed to submit, chances are, you read the category’s description less than once. News features aren’t the same thing as columns, a fact that would likely shock dozens of people who submitted them to a contest I recently judged. When the description on a feature photo contest says “Should not be posed or include mugging for the camera,” that shot of some dude-bro doing the double-thumbs-up for your yearbook’s candids page isn’t going to cut it.
In some cases, again, we can squint a little bit and give you the benefit of the doubt. However, when you have Shaggy-level denial of reality happening because you just threw entries into categories willy-nilly, you’re not going very far.
- Make sure the damned thing works: I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten dead links to stories (or for some reason, a website that my university and my cable company both would not allow me to enter for fear of dangerous computer viruses) or uploads that didn’t fully upload. I also have gotten PDFs of pages where I’m told “see XXXX continued on page 4” but there was no PDF of page 4. If it doesn’t work, I can’t judge it and that’s really going to limit your chances of winning.
MOMENTS OF AMAZEMENT:
The entries people turn in never cease to amaze me in the best and the strangest of ways. It’s always easiest to remember the ones that make you shake your head as a judge. I still remember the opening of a column that read, “I know you don’t care about this topic or what I have to say on it, but that’s too bad because I’m doing it anyway.” So much for audience-centric content…
However, the good ones also stick with me over the years. The people on campus that students find to profile range from those daily workers with amazing back stories to professors reflecting on incredible moments over extensive careers. The columns about cultural strife on campus can create change and inspire readers. (More than a few of them made me want to just run and hug the writer and say, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this…”)
One of the main reasons why I love doing the blog is when student journalists do amazing things and they get to talk about how they did whatever it was that they did. Whether it was catching an administrator in an act of economic malfeasance or analyzing years of food-service records, those stories “moved the needle” on campuses and made me smile about how much better journalism will continue to be as these folks continue to grow.
WHY DIDN’T I WIN? WELL, MAYBE FOR A COUPLE REASONS… :
If you grew up in the 1980s like I did, you spent a lot of time watching “Indiana Jones” movies and bugging your parents to buy you a bullwhip. Of all the swashbuckling and heroic acts Indy pulled off over those three movies (Don’t you dare talk to me about that “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” thing. Indy had three movies. That’s all.), it was this moment of failure that speaks the most to me.
After surviving untold risks to save a precious artifact, Indy thought he could rely on the local law enforcement to do what was right. He was wrong, but he got a valuable one-liner and a very cool hat for his troubles:
Nobody really likes to lose (except maybe the Washington Generals), so it can feel horrible when you submit your favorite story or photo, wait several months, get all dressed up and go to the ceremony, only to hear someone else’s name get called. In areas in which school rivalries run deep, it can feel even worse if your rival school gets something you didn’t. (I’m still amazed at some of the deep-seated levels of hatred that fully grown adults harbor when discussing rivalry schools… Then again, I still have trouble accepting that anything good can come out of “that other paper” at UW-Madison, more than three decades after I last wrote for The Daily Cardinal.)
Here are a few possibly discouraging answers to why you didn’t win that aren’t meant to discourage you, but rather offer some solace when things don’t go your way.
- It isn’t that you weren’t good. You might not have been good enough: Losing is a tough pill to swallow and it provides you with kind of an unfair dichotomy. Someone else was a “winner” while you are a “loser.” That’s not what contests like these actually determine.
You might have written an amazing piece that did a lot of incredible things. However, someone else might just have been better that year. Once you find out you didn’t take home the prize, it can be awfully difficult to go find the winning entry and see what that piece provided that yours maybe didn’t. However, this can be instructive for the next time or to help you improve in general.
Even if you don’t want to go through that exercise of exploration, you should try to find solace in the fact that not earning a first, second or third place doesn’t mean you did a lousy job. It is entirely possible that someone that year was just better.
- “Yeah, it’s challenging:” A whole heck of a lot of things can happen on the way to the victory stand, many of them are not going to work in your favor. You might have a choice on which category to enter with a news feature/profile and you happen to pick the one with an abundance of entries. You might end up with a great piece but there’s a ringer in there, written by the one kid who is going to walk right out of college and into a staff job at the NY Times. You might have spelled one word wrong, and that’s enough to bug a judge to the point of distraction.
Perhaps the best way to view your entry into contests of this type is to look at the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament: Certain entries have better or worse chances of making it through. Only one team can win, but it’s not always the highest ranked or the most talented. Upsets can occur and great teams can be undone by an inherent flaw that emerges at the worst possible time. Luck can also play a big part in what makes it through each round of culling.
- Contests are always random: As we have pointed out here before, contest judging is not an exact science. This is why you should be happy when you win, but not happy to the point of self-aggrandizing arrogance. If you don’t win, you have the right to be unhappy about it, but not so much that you start questioning your work, your effort or your talent. There are always ways that you can improve for next time, but don’t let winning an award become an obsession.
Hope that helps. Now, back to judging…