A few observations from judging journalism contests this year

Best Whatever Trophy – Sarah Duyer

“I’d like to congratulate the winners while keeping their names out of my (EXPLETIVE) mouth…”


I spent a significant portion of March judging various media contests at a variety of journalistic levels. One of the things I have found about being a judge is that once you agree to judge a contest, you become part of some eternal list that gets shared and reused and shared and reused. Not since the loaves and fishes miracle has there been an exponential expansion like the one I have seen for my judging requests.

I honestly don’t mind it and I think it’s a great way to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the field. I have judged nationwide and statewide contests this year, giving me a look at some local issues and some broader concerns. I’ve also judged high school, college and professional publications, which helped me see various levels of growth and some interesting (and occasionally painful) commonalities among those levels. It also helps me see what people think is truly the best of their best work, as the submissions are meant to represent potential award-winners.

Without further ado, here’s a look at some of the good and maybe not so good aspects of what emerged from this year’s collection of entries:

PEOPLE KNOW THEIR AUDIENCES: One of the best things I’ve seen come out of this mix was how on-point people were about meeting the needs of their audiences, and recognizing the importance of meeting those needs. In one professional contest, I found that a reporter was taking extra time to slowly breakdown a complex set of figures to outline how and why this change to a school district policy mattered to the parents in that district. In a college contents, I noticed the level of attention paid to local stories that had serious impacts, like the terrible conditions in one of the residence halls. That particular piece had a ton of great reporting about how flooding forced students to deal with lousy conditions, how the maintenance folks weren’t responding well enough and how long all of this was going on.

Other stories also focused on key aspects of the school life, ranging from shifts in COVID protocols on campus, to changing traditional events to give people a complete college experience during the pandemic, to issues of faith at schools that had a religious connection. In each case, it was clear these folks understood that even in a global pandemic, local issues needed to be at the forefront of their locally based publications.


ATTRIBUTION AGONY: I know I’m a total crank on this one, but hear me out. Attributions matter for a wide array of reasons: They show support for content. They provide protection for the authors. They also just let me know who is saying something so I don’t feel like I’m hearing voices in my head.

Attributions tended to show up in a lot of these stories at random intervals, without any rhyme or reason. It was like the author flipped a coin: Heads we’ll attribute this paragraph, and tails we won’t. That was the only reason I could find for attributing things that were so fact driven, nothing bad could happen without an attribution (e.g. when someone became a teacher) and not attributing content that could get you sued into the ground (e.g. accusations of illegal spending).

If the coin determined the presence of an attribution, apparently a “Wheel of Fortune” device was used to determine the verb of attribution. “Said” got use in some cases, but I also saw things like “claimed,” “argued,” “laughed,” “noted” and “proclaimed.”

The one that bothered me the most, however, was “expressed,” as in:

“Jones expressed that he wanted to win the game.”

First, the grammar there makes no sense.

Second, exactly how did he “express” it without saying it? Was he doing it through emojis? Did he get REEEEEAAAALLLLY into mime during the pandemic and can’t stop now?


Do tell, how this “expressing” occurred.

Finally, and maybe this will put an end to this kind of thing, every time I hear about “expressed” I go back to the time we had to take our dog to the vet to have her anal glands expressed. (That’s a real thing.)

So the next time you plan to “express” in your writing, just watch this and wait for better verbiage to come along:


RIGHT TOOL, RIGHT JOB: I got a number of “Best in Show” categories that pitted full issues of each publication against those of other contenders. This gave me the chance to see everything the paper or website did on a particular section or a particular topic.

What I got to see was that people generally had a really strong sense of when to use specific forms of communication to get their messages across. I found that stories with math tended to make good use of graphics. Stories about people had nice descriptions and good head shots. Action stories tended to use a lot of good visuals while stories with more “in the weeds” stuff used timelines or background boxes to do the heavy lifting in some simple ways.

This was a big switch from previous years where it felt like some papers felt that EVERYTHING needed a graphic or a photo, regardless of its practical applicability. It also seemed like this year the visuals tended to have sizes that were commensurate with values. In other words, I wasn’t getting full-page mug shots or graphics that could serve as a thimble cozy. Stuff read well at size and did the job well.

HOLES, HOLES EVERYWHERE: I can’t remember the last time I saw as many stories that people considered award-worthy entrants that had only one human source in them. I would have been more willing to give these folks a pass if these stories were epic, data-driven, investigative pieces where sources were dodging the reporter like they had been trained by Patches O’Houlihan. However, the array of content here ranged from one-source meeting stories to one-source personality profiles.

These aren’t really stories, so much as they are soliloquies at that point.

Even when stories had more than one source, they still had some pretty obvious holes. In one contest, I was on a judging panel and we all agreed on the winner, even as we all agreed that a story involving something that would impact parents and children should at least TRY to include quotes from parents and children. In another case, a fellow judge asked me about a story that highlighted an achievement it took a teacher their whole career to reach. “Did the writer even CHECK to see that this happened?” the judge asked me. I thought it was a good question, given the claim would have taken dozens of years to accumulate, so a simple, “How did you keep track of X over all those years?” seemed to merit an ask.

QUOTED QUOTABLES: Quotes need to include information unique to a source or information said in a unique fashion. In other words, it’s gotta be powerful stuff or pithy verbiage if it’s going to work.

Both of these were present in the content I saw. This was particularly true from some of the high school publications I read. The quotes from students captured emotions so perfectly in so many cases, whether it was joy, anger or general annoyance. I also found that the publications that seemed to have a good handle on filling the niche their publication tended to cover seemed to have quotes that reflected that niche: Educational pubs tended to have quotes that were more explanatory. Religious pubs tended to have quotes that reflected faith-based ideology. College arts sections tended to have that “promising local band” feel to them.

For some reason, the quotes just really worked.


LONG AND WINDING PROSE: There appears to be a misguided correlation in the minds of a lot of folks between something being really long and something being really good. Granted, some stories need more room to breathe than others, based on a large number of factors, including the number of sources needed in the story, the overall complexity of the story and the amount of information necessary to tell the story. It’s also true that most stories can shed 10% without losing a bit of value.

However, I found in reading both profiles and in-depth stories that it seemed the authors felt the missing ingredient to making a story great was to make it longer. In most cases, I have found the opposite to be true.

One of the many benefits I get in writing books that I don’t get on the blog is having an editor who will tell me, “Stop writing so damned much.” I also tend to get put on word counts, so that the 10,000-word chapter doesn’t suddenly become 15,000 for no other reason than I was on a roll and “Bat Out Of Hell” was playing in my headphones at the time. The folks who edit me are nice enough to suggest trims, with the idea that I can argue to keep them, but for most of the cuts, they’re usually right.

We tend to put too much emphasis on length in terms of stories we enter for contests, with the idea that we invested a lot of time into this, so it’s probably really valuable. In most of the winners I picked, the inverse was true: They got my attention, told me something important and finished up relatively quickly. A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t read it, don’t write it.

One final piece note…

If you find yourself torn between entering and not entering a contest, just enter it. I don’t know if I’m a typical or even good judge some years. When I end up on a panel of judges and we’re all feeling the same way about something, it actually makes me feel better because I get the sense that I might actually know what I’m talking about.

That said, a winner is in the eye of the beholder, so give yourself a shot.

You can’t win if you don’t enter.

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