A neon sign reading WIN

By Jacqui Banaszynski

It’s awards’ season in the journalism industry, and with that comes your free continuing education. And with it comes a chance to refresh and refocus your journalism — for free.

There are plenty of award skeptics out there. I get that. The work itself, and the public purpose it serves, should be the guiding light of our profession — the true win. But a little validation along the way is nice, especially when paychecks can be slim, industry news can be discouraging and journalism keeps slipping downward on trust-o-meters.

I believe our readers/listeners/viewers appreciate what we do more than they express or polls show. People always seem more motivated to react in the negative than to send a note of gratitude. (Consider the ratio of complaints to compliments in your own life, whether it’s on the job or at home.) That tendency has been amplified by the anonymity of social media and online comments, which too often are downright cruel.

Most journalists accept that imbalance. However precarious our perch, it is one of privilege. We probe worlds both public and private; we sometimes ask questions that violate the boundaries of polite society; we dare to challenge authority and, at times, assign blame; we insert our work into readers’ homes or televisions or radios or tablets or earbuds. We believe what we do matters.

But never doubt: It does matter — in ways that can be hard to keep in sight under the grind of deadlines, the attacks from our critics and the discouragement of silence. If you’ve ever felt you are sending your stories into a void, trust me: You are not alone.

So I’m all for a bit of validation. It’s best if it comes from the public we try to serve. I treasure every thank-you note I’ve ever received from a reader. They are far fewer than the snipes. But when I stumble across them while I’m hunting through the yet-to-be-organized boxes in my garage, I am struck by this: The expressions of gratitude or appreciation are always specific, while the loudest cranks tend to be generic. I accept criticisms about typos or imprecise language, and respond to those with acknowledgement, apologies and fixes. I learn. But when a criticism is so all-encompassing that it can’t be grasped, all I can do is check myself, scrutinize what I can do better and, most important, renew my commitment to respectful, purposeful, values-based work. Work that matters.

What awards can teach

Which brings me back to awards season. Shrug at it if you want. Then I urge you to reconsider: It is easy (free!) access to a great reading list. Beyond that, the winners and finalists offer that continuing education I mentioned above: These stories demonstrate everything from how reporters identified sources to how they asked questions to how they structured complex pieces. They highlight aspects of our work by categories: Breaking news reminds us we can work fast; explanatory shows the importance of clarity; investigative work celebrates the prime directive of holding power accountable; even topic-focused awards, like business and health reporting, honor stories that are equal parts technical and literary.

On the societal scale, the awards are a reflection of the issues that define our times. Yes, the press (I’m old-school, so I’ll call it that) focuses on troubling issues: gun violence, racial disparities, income inequality, system failures. That’s the job. We can be criticized for doing it, but what would happen if we didn’t?

Closer to home, the awards show where we are as a profession. My early read of the award winners reminds me of our purpose and renews my faith: As challenging as these times are, the quality of work has not flagged. We learn from each other (check out the multi-media winners, then note how what we call features or narrative journalism incorporates visual elements), build on each other, leapfrog forward — and continue to matter.

A sampler to start with

I don’t pretend to offer a all-inclusive list of various association awards. I am, of course, eager to see this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced May 7. But for now, here are a few things that came to my inbox in recent days, and offered good reading, good education and good encouragement:

  • The 2024 National Magazine Awards from ASME, the American Society of Magazine Editors. Don’t overlook the finalists.
  • The Poynter Journalism Prizes. The brand name is new since the Poynter Institute now hosts what used to be the awards chosen by the NLA (News Leaders Association), which was a merger of ASNE (American Society of News Editors) and APME (Associated Press Managing Editors). This was long considered the U.S. newspaper industry’s equivalent of the National Magazine Awards and the more writerly sister of the Pulitzers.
  • The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) awards. A fuller list including finalists is linked from the primary site. This can be considered a niche award, but so much of the issues in the U.S. and world now fall under a health umbrella. (Note: Unlike most awards, AHCJ dates its awards by the year published, not the year awarded, so these are the 2023 honorees.)
  • Similarly, you might not think business writing offers insight to narrative work, but don’t dismiss the pieces honored this year by SABEW, the Society for the Advancement of Business Editing and Writing. Clarity should always rise to the top in journalism, and money runs the world.
  • The 2024 Hillman Prizes honor “journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.” Isn’t that what we are about? (Personal note: I am especially interested in Samuel G. Freedman’s winning book, “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the  Fight for Civil Rights.” I worked as a reporter in Minnesota, Humphrey’s home state, for 15 years, and stood on a snowbank for several hours waiting for news of his death. I am eager to learn the beginning of that story.)

Again, far from an all-inclusive list. Do check out those story subjects or associations you are most interested in: environmental, multi-media, design. Meanwhile, tuck in, read and learn.

Further Reading