Becoming a better newspaper

It’s January, and thoughts will turn shortly to spring – but before that, many a publisher will be considering contest entries.

It will be June before those coveted plaques are handed out, but the deadlines for entries will be much sooner, and I have a few thoughts (and pet peeves) to share about newspaper contests and participation therein.

Over the years my newspaper has been fortunate enough to win a few contests, but my first observation is this: the purpose of the contest is not to win awards. That may come as a surprise to all those hopeful people who show up on Saturday for the awards brunch, but in my experience I never took home a plaque that made my newspaper better, which is the purpose of the contest.

But participating in the contest made my newspaper better, and here’s how:

First, selecting contest entries improved my newspaper. The benefit is often for the future, but the act of selecting contest entries gives you a critical eye into your own work. And in the act of going through the previous year’s work, you will find things you want to do more of, and other things that you will swear never to do again, and that makes you better.

Second, while wanting to do our best work for the readers we serve ought to be motivation enough, knowing that it could be judged by our peers adds a certain layer of motivation to the work we do.

Third, participation in press conventions helps you become better.

After attending two days of a press convention, I have always felt a sense of loss for the people who register just to come to the awards brunch. I don’t think they have any clue what they have missed out on by not being there for the whole experience. It’s not the programs alone, it is the interaction with your peers. How do they handle the situations you also experience? And how can you help them? The interaction is invaluable.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest factor, judging other newspaper contests makes you a better newspaper.

I really miss the “old days” when we met in Austin to judge other newspaper contests. It’s just not the same since it went online. That said, immersing yourself in the work of others with a critical eye still gives you insights that will make your newspaper better. And there is a wealth of treasure just waiting to be “appropriated” in your own community. One of our favorite annual features came from an idea I stole while judging!

There is another observation about the old days that I suspect is also still true. In addition to the camaraderie that was in evidence on judging day, it was hard not to notice the newspapers that typically continually won sweepstakes were also the newspapers who sent judges. I think the adage is true that you only get out of something what you are willing to put into it.

So if you want to have a winning newspaper, I recommend three things: participate in TPA conventions, volunteer to judge, and, of course, enter the contest!