Photo of several cups of latte with autumn leaves.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

It’s that season again — and I don’t mean the season of the pumpkin spice latte, which I consider a bad idea on several levels. I mean the season to watch for journalism contest entry due dates. Early alerts have been popping up in my inbox, notably for the True Story Award, the National Magazine Awards and the Narratively Memoir Prize.

The National Magazine Awards, aka the Ellies, likely need no introduction, at least for U.S.-based journalists. True Story and Narratively Memoir are relative newcomers but worth checking out. True Story, based in Bern, Switzerland, strives to honor significant stories from around the world, not based on geography or story type, but on the language of publication. I was on the English-language jury for the first three years and found it an enlightening challenge to compare stories done in different places, under different circumstances and in different cultural frames. Narratively, which was started a decade ago by two frustrated newsroom journalists, also welcomes voices from around the world; the awards honor stories by genre; this is the second year for a memoir prize.

Other contest notices will be rolling out soon. I can’t track all of them, so if there’s one you want featured — especially if it involves an award for artful story craft — send me a note. (No commercial or public relations contests, please.)

I nag you about contest deadlines with no illusion that it will make much difference. Even long-term project journalists seem to suffer from acute last-minute disease when it comes to doing discretionary things in advance. It seems a simple thing to set aside your best work throughout the year, as it is published, and then do some quick culling during entry season. But it sure never worked that way for me, either as a reporter or an editor. Late January, when Pulitzer entries in journalism are due, often found me selecting and printing and organizing pieces late into the nights as I studied the fine print of entry requirements. Some contest deadlines blew by without my notice until it was too late. Ooops. And a lot of contests have rolling deadlines depending on the entry category, with some coming due by early November.

Why the fuss about contests? I’ve written about this before, but I’ll recap. To me, it was never about the win — at least not mostly. (Hey! Who doesn’t have an ego or thrill at a little validation?) Rather it became a way to aspire, to study the best journalism out there and try to measure up, to make my work about more than a toss-pile of paragraphs. It also proved a good way to manage time: If I wanted to have contest-worthy work to enter by year’s end, either as a reporter or editor, I had to set progress markers throughout the year. It may not feel very creative to set reminders to be creative, but you can’t just conjure the muse; you have to earn her presence with work.

Last note for now: Contests are a way to track changes in journalism and society. Those once for daily print publications now accept digital and magazine stories. Audio (podcasts) sometimes stands alone and sometimes is recognized with similar subject material. Start-ups have become legacy sites. And a scan of winners each year can reveal crucible issues of our times.

Those winners and the countless quality entries that didn’t get the big nod also remind us that great work — solid, better-than-ever work — is still done, day in and day out, by nonfiction storytellers around a shaky world.

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