Three gold neon stars on a wall

If you’ve never judged a journalism contest, I urge you to raise your hand. The work can be blistering: Dozens of stories to read, tight delivery deadlines, clumsy online access. But the profession needs your service. And it is an unparalleled education in craft and mission.

A friend and former colleague put it far better the other night. She had just finished judging one of the most respected contests in the profession; I had just finished another. We compared the number of entries we read (Mine tally was 64, all longish projects with some narrative flair.), our survival processes (If I’m not engaged in a story in the first 10 paragraphs, why would I give it a star?) and the debates we had with fellow judges (Fie! They don’t always like the same things we do.).

Then my friend sat back in her chair, beamed a smile and said, “It was a blood transfusion.”

Perfect description. To read and view these batches of work in one lump is to be reminded that, despite the challenges biting the ankles of the industry, the work — and the commitment to that work — is stronger than ever. Even the pieces I read that had no chance of landing in the top three would have earned a front-page home on any news site in the nation. No spoilers here — most of the big awards will be announced in early- to mid-April — but all taught me something. I learned about the search for survivors in a collapsed building, and how we manipulate and are manipulated by artificial intelligence. I traveled to the melting icecaps of Greenland and the sealed wards of a hospital ICU. I sat with a woman who helped her father die and stood on the range with a rancher fighting for his legacy.

What makes winning journalism

After the dinner with my friend, I called Mountain Editor. He had just finished his own judging, this of small community newspapers in another state. He, too, found the process blistering and, at times, discouraging. Many of the entries came from news sites that have been strip-mined down to one or two staffers, each doing five or more pieces a week as they take photos and deliver papers and probably beg for advertising. But in the end, he said, he felt renewed. The focus of the work he read may have been micro-local, but the belief in public service ran just as deep. We talked about our own early newsroom days, and how stories we were proud of then make us cringe now — but how we learned, story by story by story. We lamented that some of the young people coming into the biz now don’t have the veterans to guide them like we did. We talked about what we can do to be those guides in our own orbits.

And I laughed out loud when he read his comment on one of the entries he judged: “You gotta read Katie!”

You gotta read …

If there’s a better tribute to what we do, and why we do it, I’ve not heard it. When the awards roll out in coming weeks, don’t just bookmark them. Read them. Read them for what you’ll learn about what is possible in this work. Read them for a needed blood transfusion. Read them for what they prove: That we’re still here, at the school board meeting on Main Street and the bombed-out streets of Ukraine. And that what we do matters — not because it might win awards, but because it might enlighten the world.


A version of this post was originally published in the Storyboard newsletter on March 11, 2022.

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