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.

  • 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.

  • 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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  • Mike Henneke

    The last graf: nailed it.

  • whathefunpeople

    Worked in Newspapers when the little thing called the internet arrived. Watched the advertising disappear which unfortunately funds the newsroom. Readership bailed and as subscribers dropped the office became more like a morgue. I saw the demise of my beloved medium. I had wished the paper could be what it was but most of the bylines were from the newswire services. The paper bailed on what was most important to the community “local news” This wasn’t a small paper at one time we were the largest in New England but the NY Times who had purchased the paper when times were good and made obscene profits never saved for a rainy day and watched the Boston Globe bleed out. I sat in a meeting with the Publisher and asked what was the plan to deal with the erosion of advertising categories, Help Wanted (bigger than most Sunday Papers) then Travel and Education, Real Estate and Automotive. The Publisher stated that they were like the Queen Mary and it takes time to turn a ship. My reply is that we were more like the Titanic. I was asked politely not to ask any more questions. Sad to see the death of the backbone of journalism it has been long, slow, painful death. RIP

  • Andy – Eloquent eulogy. I’m saddened and angry on your behalf.

  • Rebecca Wallace Dickerson

    HI, Andy. my newspaper in eastern Washington state is for sale. I’ve published for 21 years at a profit – you wouldn’t mind moving 3,000 miles to live the dream, would you?

  • A fine, fine piece of writing, Andy. I’ve several former colleagues who worked at The Gazette at one time or another. What a shame.

  • Thanks for taking the time to write this. I’m sure that you’ve voiced what so many others on that day felt. I hope that you’re able to find gratifying, fulfilling work very soon.

  • Kathy Gambrell

    As a former Gazette reporter (1990s)…I started my career there and have thought as the cornerstone of the community, it would stand long after my career was over. This is both disheartening and tragic. But as reflected in other comments….Andy, you nailed this one. Great, but sad, piece.

  • AndySchotz

    Hi, Becky. I’m tempted – but the commute from Maryland would be a bear.

  • disqus_tpzrM7AXBU

    So sad. Time marches on and so many good things change. My late husband Daniel Butcher, was part of the Gazette family, and helped to develop the Prince Georges County editions. He truly loved the newspaper and what it stood for. Even before the Post bought the Gazette line, I loved getting that piece of goodness, information, and coupons on our doorstep in Montgomery County. I was so happy when the Post bought them and he transferred over. Ironically, for the very first edition for College Park, I had lined up his first 12 month ad through my ice rink just by mentioning the newspaper and the circulation, the ad sold itself. Good memories of a much more tangible time.

  • Bobcat1234

    Thanks for some insight for a non-journalist reader, on the dismantling process. Guilty! I never got around to subscribing and now it’s too late for the Prince George’s edition — and this despite good activist friends’ urgings to sign up. I’m sorry to see the closure because indeed, this was often the sole source for any local issue news other than the PR machines of the administration. It was the only outlet for many a local community group also. The Post seems to prefer to write about the criminals in PG County instead of about some of the unsung heroes. I miss the Gazette already. I wish you great success in your future endeavors — I feel sure they will be noteworthy!

  • Patti Gallagher Newberry

    Andy: So very sorry to read the news.

  • Vetarnias

    “Before they choose three finalists, those judges will review public
    comments, looking for factual errors they may have missed in their own
    research. (Yup, we’re crowdsourcing our fact-checking.)”

    This I think is a serious mistake. The shortlists will end up being brigaded to dispose of any article which happens to be from an outlet blacklisted by the GG ‘consumer revolt’, regardless of the actual worth of the article in question.

    So, expect the judges to be fed massive amounts of bull by disgruntled gamers who couldn’t care less about the accuracy of an article unless it served them to nitpick it.

  • Hedger

    Fact check the fact checking?

    I don’t think the purpose is to find or correct actual errors, but simply to narrow the scope of the judges required research down to the most contentious issues.

    And I think you underestimate or misunderstand the principals at play within gamergate communities. The content of the articles is of little importance, what’s in question for those communities is how those articles put together their arguments. Are they trying to inform? Are they trying to have actual discourse? (having discussion is a rediculous idea when communicating only goes in one direction) Or is the goal simply to drive traffic by playing to emotions?

    All you have done here is attempt to poison the well. Now if what ever personalities you wished to win dont. It’s not because there were better entries or that their piece didn’t qualify, is because goober grabbers rigged the vote or conned the judges, as if the judges are so incompetent as to not account for such obvious attempts to tamper with the process.

    No matter the result, you will never be satisfied because you are not looking to be satisfied, you are looking to complain.

  • Gamergater #7230

    You have a terribly low opinion of gamers.

  • sinister

    I fail to see how a random YouTuber was expected to interview these people? What I would love to see from you, rather than just some insinuation he’s wrong and complaining about the tone, what you believe was wrong with the information provided. I take exception to the idea that someone “[being a] target of GamerGate” is an issue, unless you can show why that ‘targeting’ was misapplied.

    I don’t mind you taking exception with the tone or the accusations, but this complaint lacks substance and looks more like hand-waving than anything else.

    [edited because phone posting should be illegal]

  • These are supposed to be journalism awards. Not awards for “a random YouTuber”. It’s fine to make attempts to contact the company, and say “the company declined comment”. It’s impossible to imagine though that with enough persistence, the creator of this video could not have found people to interview.

    Journalists interview people. I’m sitting in a lobby right now, waiting for the subject of an interview of an article I’m writing on Atlanta’s Muslim community. I’ve been interviewing, or preparing interview questions and researching my subjects, all day.

    If you want to create nifty videos for the entertainment of people in need of bias confirmation, that’s fine. It can be entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with entertainment. But it shouldn’t be a contender in a journalism award.

  • Burn Ender

    Schafer hides behind a blockbot on twitter, good luck getting anyone who is either remotely critical of him or wants to ask tough questions in order to land an interview with him. I have never tweeted the guy and found myself blocked. The guy literally has thousands of people blocked while ridiculing those same people w/o ever having to engage in rational discourse with his critics.

  • sinister

    So which INFORMATION do you take issue with. You don’t like the tone, great. Now what about the information presented?

  • Twitter isn’t a very good way of contacting someone you want to interview (although email addresses are sometimes in the profile). A phone call to the company is much better. Sometimes the company has a press officer. That’s always a good starting point. If you get doors slammed in your face, that’s part of the story (“Jones declined comment”) Beyond that, you can collect the names of employees and former employees and talk to them. This video was supposed to be an expose of a company. Instead it proved conclusively that the boilerplate disclaimer for penny stocks is scary. Even if that’s all the creator wanted to prove, he could have interviewed someone with expertise in crowdfunded investments.

    “Hiding behind a blockbot” is a meaningless statement. Getting interviews with people who don’t want to be interviewed is a skill worth mastering. It requires being asshole enough to be persistent, but not enough of an asshole to get the door slammed in your face permanently.

    There are reporters who have a reputation for getting interviews with recalcitrant people (Mike McGraw in Kansas City comes to mind.) Those people should and do win journalism awards.

  • I take issue with any information in an investigative piece directed at an individual, that is put forward without an attempt to allow the individual to refute the information. This wasn’t a general informational piece. The title had an accusation of fraud in it.

  • A phone call to the company is much better.

    I sometimes try this and sometimes I just get the runaround and a hang-up. That’s not to say that the YouTuber was given the runaround, but phone calls don’t guarantee anything.

    Sometimes the company has a press officer.

    And they’ll just toss your e-mail into the spam folder or give you the runaround.

    If you get doors slammed in your face, that’s part of the story (“Jones declined comment”)

    That’s a good point. I agree.

    Beyond that, you can collect the names of employees and former employees and talk to them.

    NDAs and being blacklisted prevent this from being viable unless they’re used as anonymous sources. As silly as the blacklisting sounds I’ve talked to enough developers who weren’t willing to go on record for that very reason. In a way, that’s a story in itself.

    “Hiding behind a blockbot” is a meaningless statement. Getting interviews with people who don’t want to be interviewed is a skill worth mastering.

    Skill or not, if people decline to comment or even respond, there’s not much that can be done about that.

    There are reporters who have a reputation for getting interviews with recalcitrant people […] Those people should and do win journalism awards.

    Interviews are nice to have on hand for corroborating information, but they don’t make or break an investigative piece. The Star didn’t have to interview Evan Solomon to break the story about his profiteering scheme nestled up alongside his CBC gig.

  • That’s not the way Kevin Donovan tells it. He approached Soloman and asked him about his art business. Soloman initially told him he didn’t have an art business. The story moved on from there.

  • One further fun fact. The need to get quotes and interviews isn’t confined to investigative pieces. I’m mostly a very old student at the moment (getting credentialed up), but I hire freelancers from time to time for a hyperlocal site I have in a perpetual state of prelaunch sneak preview. An aspiring young music writer agreed to write for me, so I assigned him to cover a popular experimental bluegrass band scheduled to play a local festival. He immediately went to youtube, and was going to make that the basis of the piece. I told him to call the band’s manager and set up a phone interview with the band’s leader a few weeks prior to the concert.

    He did, and it turned out to be a nice article. But it’s mind-boggling to me that writers who mostly grew up with the internet don’t see the value in directly contacting the people they are writing about, or keeping phone lists of experts and functionaries. There’s way too much written on a foundation of growing layers of web aggregation. Writers should be required to do projects that require interviewing, note-taking, recording, transcribing, and developing a growing database of sources.


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