Journalism contests have, um, a great personality

So as SPJ’s brand-new Region 3 director, I recently learned I’m half in charge of a journalism contest called The Green Eyeshade Awards.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s great, Koretzky, because there just aren’t enough journalism contests out there.

This one is regional (covering 11 southeastern states) and old (62 years and counting). Last year, it got nearly 500 entries. That’s good news, because the entry fees pay for all sorts of groovy SPJ programs, including my favorite, Will Write for Food.

But a handful of categories brought in exactly zero entries. Some were so specific, it wasn’t a real surprise – like “Public Service in Newsletter Journalism.”

But others were big and broad: “Illustrations” and “Magazine Graphics.” And none of the graphic-design or photo categories hit double digits. Example: “Magazine Feature Photography” got two entries.

Why? Because our website sucked last year. It looked like this (click to embiggen)…

…until I redesigned it last weekend.

Now this may sound shallow to some – when I talk design to many SPJ leaders, they smile dismissively – but looks matter. Graphic designers (and I’m one, sorta) aren’t going to enter a contest whose website looks like shit any more than a print reporter will spend cash entering a contest whose site is littered with misspellings and run-on sentences.

The Green Eyeshade Awards aren’t exactly racking up entry fees in the online categories, either. I think crappy design is a big reason why.

I’m an editor for a national personal finance site, and based on last year’s Green Eyeshades site, my boss wouldn’t fork over $40 to enter the “Best Blog” category.

So who’s to blame here?

Not my Green Eyeshade predecessors. They got jobs and lives that don’t involve graphic design. (Whereas I work at home and have no life. Or friends.)

This isn’t just about the Green Eyeshades. When I talk to other SPJ chapters who run contests, they report huge drops in the traditional print categories, as daily newspapers stop paying the entry fees for their ever-shrinking staffs. Those chapters report little progress luring online and design entrants. That’s because they don’t know how.

So no one’s really to blame, but I know who really needs to fix it.

SPJ National has a clean-looking site (which you’re on right now) and a graphic designer on staff. But chapter leaders and even RDs seldom have the skills, money, or time to get their own contest sites redesigned.

SPJ HQ needs to offer free design work for RDs and chapter presidents. Yes, I’m asking HQ to take on more work for the same pay – as we’re all doing in these crappy economic times. This isn’t an esoteric request, either. Contest money is often the only cold, hard cash chapters have for programming. And without programming, there’s no compelling reason to join SPJ.

As chairman of SPJ’s new Blue Sky Committee, I’m going to make this one of my proposals to the SPJ president in January. I’ll explain it more on the Blue Sky blog next week. But if you got any ideas or insults until then, email me.

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  • Gabriel Tyner

    As a graphic design school dropout, I totally agree about the importance of graphic design. I decided I could continue my studies on my own, after learning the basic elements of design like color, contrast, and repetition. These are the important things in life. For example, buying a DVD, reading a blog, or even trying to decide which pants to put with which shirt are intrinsic elements to design. Design is everything, and if you don’t get it, then you are probably only buying that T-shirt because it “looks good,” and not because the alignment of the Sans Serif fonts make you horny. Preach On.

  • walter brasch

    I agree that graphics is good. BUT, if journalists aren’t entering contests because the graphics are mediocre, then the problem isn’t with the contest or the graphics. As a journalist, with strong knowledge of editing and graphic design (I’m a former reporter;editor and now retired college prof.) I emphasized that design must complement not dominate text and message. Too often, the cutesy great-looking designs are just a lot of opixilated noise. The EDITOR is in charge, not the designer. The two must work together. So, while better deisgn is great–look at underlying issues (you mentioned newspapers not paying contest costs) to find out why low-paid reporters are buying beer instead of entering contests.

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