Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 17, 2013

Life is harsh, but judgments from editors can be harsher at contest time

— The newsroom is buzzing around me. Reporters’ voices echo through the third floor. I hear excitement over a cold case arrest and details of an embezzlement charge. Meanwhile, I’m in my office. Glass walls and a thin door isolate me from the din.

I want to be in on the action, making calls and getting quotes. Instead, I’m knee-deep in papers from 2012. It’s contest time, and I’m preparing our best work to be subjected to criticism from newspaper editors across the country. Might as well light a match to my tongue.

Having entered editorial contests and judged them for more than 20 years, I realize these contests must be taken seriously ... but also not-too-seriously. It’s good to put one’s best work out there, to hear the critiques and compliments from peers. However, judging is subjective, and one should never be too confident that a particular story, photo or layout is among the best of the best in the state or nation.

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Our current contest includes 100-plus newspapers across the nation. I’m familiar with the competition and I know it’s tough. And we’re among the big dogs in the bunch. Sifting through the entries, I’m being rough on reporters, editors and photographers. In the day-to-day business, I’m sympathetic to staff shortages, computer glitches and a myriad of other problems that can ultimately result in errors, large and small, in our print edition. At contest time, that sympathy goes out the window. I’m frustrated at one typo that spoils an otherwise potentially winning entry.

One bad headline, one misplaced comma, one not-so-smart photo choice can kick a great paper to the curb. Life is harsh, but judgments from editors can be much harsher.

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So what do editors look for in an award-winning paper? Everything.

Big stories, huge headlines, dramatic photos, compelling lead paragraphs, detailed investigative reports, engaging sports narratives, descriptive and informative Lifestyles features, opinionated editorials, thought-provoking letters to the editor, well-written commentary, a brisk mix of community tidbits and an entertaining comics lineup — along with a good print job. Not too much to ask for, right?

While this combination is the dream of all editors on every news day, it doesn’t always happen. Thus, we simply strive to do our best with the content and breaking news provided. Some days are exciting and action packed; others, not so much.

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A couple of years ago, I was one of the editors judging the best of the best in this national contest. Think gossipy women in an office are quick to critique with acerbic tongues? The judgment of a group of hard-core editors make water-cooler talk seem like Sunday school chatter on a beautiful spring day.

We debate the usage of “but” versus “however.” We count the numbers of “ands” in a paragraph and scowl at repetitive word usage. We roll our eyes at bad photo crops, then make the newsprint bleed with our red ink pens.

Many decades ago, I imagine the group of editors — probably all men — would have been smoking cigars and drinking whiskey while intermittently cursing and lauding the efforts of peers. Nowadays, those in the gender-diverse group offer critiques and praise while munching veggies and cookies and drinking bottled water.

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I have culled our work down to the top-notch editions. I know our newsroom staff’s efforts are not just great, but excellent. We had the big stories and dynamic headlines, while still maintaining the heart and soul of a community newspaper.

Yet I am not overly confident our work will garner an award. Too much self-confidence in this business will get you a swift kick in the rear and a wake-up call in the form of a “judge’s note” that will bring reality crashing in quickly.

Judging is subjective, and creative processes — like writing, design and photography — are viewed and scored in the eye of the beholder. What I like another judge may hate. In many cases it boils down to personal preference.

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We are all judged every day. Hair, clothing, personality and manner of speech — there are folks out there reviewing our looks and innate characteristics. While we like to think the pettiness of labels and stereotypes stops in middle school, it doesn’t. There will always be those among us who are quick to point out flaws and insecurities.

They feel better by focusing on the perceived problems of others. Too bad their discerning eyes rarely turn inward to offer an honest assessment of a personality driven by low self-confidence and immaturity.

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The contest is almost complete. Hard copies have been packed and shipped; online entries meticulously tagged and uploaded to the designated website. There’s one more competition to go, but it, too, will be finalized in a few short weeks.

I’m happy that my critical foray into 2012 is almost complete. It’s good to remember the past — its problems, pluses and perks. But I much prefer to look into the future. Who knows what excitement — what drama, what headlines — tomorrow will bring.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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