Journalism Contests Aren’t Just about Winning Prizes

Let me state at the outset that I have had mixed feelings about journalism contests.

For several years, I coordinated contests at the Detroit Free Press and saw tremendous amounts of energy — a lot of it mine — in pursuit of journalistic honors. I often wondered if those efforts would be better spent in other ways. And, of course, there were the many contests that were won by others who had better work and, (I sometimes told myself cynically), connections.

But the best contests, judged by journalists and focusing on our highest ideals, make us better. I have always liked the Pulitzer competition, the American Society of News Editors contest and Investigative Reporters and Editors for the way they are handled, the impact they have on others and the way winning works are displayed. In particular, I like that ASNE publishes the winning entries with comments from the winners and that IRE has entrants explain how they did what they did. 

Some journalists use contests to effectively raise their game by trying to match the best in the business.

I worked with one reporter who measured her most ambitious work by whether she thought it had the potential to win state contests or national ones. Although she won many awards, I knew she was not in journalism for that. Rather, she was looking for benchmarks or standards in a business that doesn’t really have many and was using the contests as a ladder. That helped her grow.

I worked with another reporter who parlayed a visit to pick up a state award into an interview and then a job. She used the occasion of that contest to network, to meet people at a bigger newsroom and to advance her career.

I’ve also interviewed people whose resumes seemed to include every contest they ever placed in and who seemed baffled about why they were not advancing in their careers, even though they were award-winning journalists.

I learned from each type of journalist. What they taught me is that contests can be a means to an end but shouldn’t be about prizes in and of themselves.

E-mail Joe for an answer to your journalism career question.

Coming Monday: How one journalist jumped from The Wall Street Journal to a startup near her home in Hawaii.

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