Cynical, yet accurate

My friend and former replacement and corporate colleague Matt Johnson of the Vernon County Broadcaster has a few things to say about journalism awards:

How do press awards work? Take, for example, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation Better Newspaper Contest. If you want to win a lot of awards, send a lot of entries. If you want to tilt the table further consider the judging criteria, tailor your entries to meet the criteria throughout the year and then send a lot of entries.

It’s great for the foundation, because it is paid for each contest entry. The practice, on the other hand, doesn’t say much for independent, free-thinking journalism.

I suppose journalists writing for newspaper contests can say that by following criteria they are writing better stories. They can further say they do an outstanding job in a variety of facets of journalism — reporting, opinion, photography, sports, advertising. And they would be mostly right.

But the practice doesn’t always pan out.

Eons ago I wrote a story about a young mother whose toddler son had been abducted by her estranged husband. The woman exhausted every avenue to find the boy, who months later was recovered in Canada and returned home. I put countless hours into that story. I did it because it was a compelling piece of journalism.

That story received a second-place award in the WNA’s contest.

The first-place award in the same category came from a reporter who went to a local school to hear a presentation by a Holocaust survivor. That story amounted to one long quote, gathered in 40 minutes and slammed on a page. I understand how interesting the stories of Holocaust survivors can be, but where was the journalism?

Ever since then, I’ve been aloof about press awards. Often you don’t know if they are being judged by the dean emeritus at a prestigious journalism school or by interns or students attending a “Judge-a-Newspaper Pizza Party.”

Some journalists assume that people care about press awards. They don’t.

The only people who care about press awards are people in the press. To narrow that list further, the only people who care about press awards are people in the press who win press awards.

What do readers want? They want news they can’t get anywhere else. They want to laugh. They want to cry. In the world of weekly journalism, they want to see the faces and names of their neighbors and learn more about their lives. The middle school honor roll might be the most-read item in a newspaper. The big-city journalists laugh at this… Of course their readers are fighting over the sports section and the comics page.

I can recall a first-place, award-winning front page designed by a weekly newspaper in the early 1990s. It was a tabloid-style newspaper page and had just one item on it — a photograph of a smiling boy holding a large fish. What the judges didn’t know is the next week the newspaper had to run a correction. It got the boy’s name wrong in the photo identification.

I can’t emphasize enough that readers believe newspapers should spell names correctly.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades the newspapers I’ve worked for have won their share of press awards. I work with colleagues whose newspapers have won hundreds of press awards. They win more awards than the number of entries I’ve sent in… I don’t begrudge them their awards, although that is one of the best sports of journalists — sardonic backbiting.

I think press awards are best bestowed on young writers who are in journalism because they love it. It is nearly impossible to make a living in this business. For the education, experience and responsibility required, the rewards and recompense are pathetic. Journalists are often on the receiving end of irrational, unfounded fury. This business is a grind for worrying hacks who show up on time and meet deadlines.

I’ve thought about writing this column for a long time. I didn’t want to come across as a hater of the WNA contest. There are hard-working, small-town journalists who deserve every accolade they receive. Dorothy Robson at the Westby Times is among them — as are my colleagues in the River Valley Newspaper Group. I know they exhaust every resource to put out quality newspapers. I have fellow editors who have stopped submitting entries to the contest. I think they lead healthier lives.

In the criminal justice system, a statement by a defendant in a criminal case that is included in the criminal complaint is assumed to be accurate when it goes against the defendant’s own legal interests. (That is, when a defendant is waiving the right to remain silent, which you’re familiar with from thousands of cop TV shows and movies.) That comes to mind only because of what Johnson also said:

I’d like to accommodate anyone who may have pegged this column as sour grapes, however, I received the WNA’s first-place award for my local column this year.

The award plaque is with all of the other WNA award plaques and certificates this newspaper has won over the last several years — collecting dust in the corner of a seldom-used conference room. I don’t care if it’s the last press award I “win.”

I mainly hope we have all of the names spelled right in this week’s paper and the news and photos on our pages engage and entertain our readers. I know I have my priorities straight.

Readers know, because of my penchant for self-promotion, that I too have won a number of WNA awards. (Pause while I run to the chiropractor for an adjustment after dislocating my shoulder patting myself on the back.) Nevertheless, Matt’s assessment is dead-on accurate, particularly this part …

It is nearly impossible to make a living in this business. For the education, experience and responsibility required, the rewards and recompense are pathetic. Journalists are often on the receiving end of irrational, unfounded fury. This business is a grind for worrying hacks who show up on time and meet deadlines.

… though maybe some explanation can add insight. (For instance: The fact is that journalism is becoming a family’s second income, because the first, in pay and benefits, is insufficient on which to actually raise a family. That continues to make me wonder why so many reporters are so obsequious to anyone who works for government, given that every single person they talk to makes more money and has considerably better benefits than they do.)

There are few lines of work in which your work, including your mistakes, end up in permanent (or at least as permanent as the Internet and print on paper) view for the entire world (or at least your publication’s readers) to see. I’m sure there are other lines of work in which your “customers” (that is, readers, listeners, viewers and advertisers) feel free to tell you how you should do your job, when they usually wouldn’t take the reverse kindly, but few come immediately to mind.

I was told by my first full-time employer that people hate the local newspaper. I’m not sure if “hate” is the appropriate verb, but certainly Wisconsinite newspaper subscribers feel very free to let you know about your shortcomings of commission or omission, legitimate or not. (Consider this choice: Someone submits a photo that is blurry despite your best Photoshop efforts. You run the photo, and some readers complain about the photo being in the paper, while you would have been criticized for not running the photo. The option of reshooting the photo is not always a viable option.) There are situations where you get praised only upon your departure, and in a backhanded sense when your successor gets criticized for not doing your work.

There is value to winning awards, but from observation the value seems to be to the newspaper or broadcast outlet, which can call itself an award-winning newspaper or radio or TV station. That is helpful to remind readers, listeners and viewers (not to mention advertisers) for marketing purposes. (Of course, the reader, listener, viewer and, most importantly, advertiser always gets the last word on whether you’re worthy of their time and money.)

It’s not clear to me that winning awards actually benefits the individual recipient (assuming the award goes to a person instead of the newspaper). Employers usually want to know if an applicant can do the job, not if an applicant can do an award-winning job. (Awards don’t tell a potential employer anything about whether the applicant gets his or her work done on deadline, finds certain work beneath himself or herself, or is a general pain in the ass to deal with.)

Journalists are, believe it or don’t, human beings. Human beings have feelings. Human beings make mistakes. Human beings want recognition for their good work, although we’d all be happier if we lived our lives not caring what other people think of us.

I’ve written — because someone else said it first — that the second best thing a writer can hear from someone is that the reader hated what you wrote, and that the worst thing to hear is something like “I don’t read your work.” That statement proves that I should have revised my statement one paragraph ago to say that journalists are warped human beings. (Getting lied to on a regular basis by politicians will make you warped and, yes, cynical.)

One thing award competitions like the WNA’s generally don’t recognize is consistent quality work from issue to issue, instead of having a small number of really good pieces — which could in theory be the journalistic roses in a garden full of weeds. In the WNA’s case, the General Excellence editorial award is based on the number of awards you win in that competition. A national newspaper organization used to have a Blue Ribbon Newspaper award that was supposed to recognize consistent good work, but it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

What comes across in Johnson’s column is his disdain for those who try to game the award system. I once had a coworker who did little in terms of writing besides writing a weekly column of local history and an occasional sappy (as far as I was concerned) story of local interest. He, of course, won WNA awards, and his column was popular locally. Those of us on staff who endured school board and city council meetings, too many grip-and-grin photos to count (including events at which food was offered, but not to us), blowout sporting events, and the other things he didn’t stoop to doing worked, as far as we were concerned, a hell of lot harder for less recognition where we worked.

(The corollary to the award whore is the journalist who spends more time currying favor with the powers that be than doing his or her job, in the hope of getting a better-paying public relations job for a politician, an institution or an organization. They can often be found working in state capitols, big cities, and of course Washington.)

There is a weekly newspaper that wins tons upon tons upon tons of WNA awards. One reason is the newspaper has more staff than probably any newspaper its size, and more than even far larger weeklies. They appear, based on their product, to have more resources to work with than other newspapers. And that’s why this newspaper gets big awards. (And deservedly so, I add.)

One paradox of this line of work is the necessity of quality vs. the necessity of getting the work done on time. If your name is on it, you should have enough pride to do the best work you possibly can do, however long it takes. On the other hand, unless you’re involved in the last of something (as I was, as you know), you can’t spend an infinite amount of time on it, because it has to get to readers, listeners and viewers at a certain time, and then, one hour, day, week or month later, they want the next edition.

This blog has reposted a lot from Newscastic, which labors under the mistaken belief that journalism is a great line of work. It’s not. One reason for journalism’s rotten pay is that journalists on the job market are a dime a dozen, thanks to all the journalism schools and departments found within U.S. colleges and universities.

At this point, readers might be tiring of the bitching and note, correctly, that no one held a gun to anyone’s head to go into this line of work, and no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head to stay in it. As to the first point: Journalism school generally does not do a good job training tomorrow’s journalists for the intangible aspects of this job. Journalism school, particularly its early stages, is supposed to weed out those who can’t do the work.

It’s not clear, though, that you can tell many 20-year-olds the way things really are and get it to sink in. Everyone has known a college student who thinks he or she knows everything. Tell them that they’re headed to a life of low pay, long hours and general disrespect, and he or she will conclude that you’re not merely cynical, but embittered and in great need of being retired.

Journalists go into this profession usually as idealists. I think that’s the legacy of the ’60s and the Watergate era. (That also helps explain the usual liberal political mindset of the media.) They think they can change the world, when (1) they really can’t and (2) the world would be better off if they merely reported accurately on it.

Of course, one of the immutable rules of this blog is that you should not love your job, because your job (and by extension your employer) doesn’t love you. Another immutable rule of this blog is that you should not do as a career what you love (for the same reason); you should do what you’re good at doing.

Journalism is important work, and it’s important to do it correctly, whether or not someone recognizes you for your work. (That’s a third immutable rule of this blog — you should do your work well whether or not you are adequately compensated or recognized at all for it.) It is therefore too important to be left to those who don’t do the job the right way. (By the way: Matt and my friends at the Ripon Commonwealth Press do their jobs the right way.)

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