Why contests need to do a better job of recognizing changes in multimedia journalism

I recently had the privilege of serving as a juror for the World Press Photo’s multimedia contest in Amsterdam.

This was, by far, one of the most organized contests I’ve attended. (For eight years I oversaw judging for the National Press Photographers’ Best of Photojournalism on the Web contest, so that’s saying a lot).

More than 250 multimedia stories were submitted, with “Afrikaner Blood” by Elles van Gelder and Ilvy Njiokiktjien coming out on top. This strong piece about racism in the new South Africa was a clear choice for the jury. Less clear was the very definition of multimedia, a term that has almost as many meanings as there are contests honoring the best of its practitioners.

Why we need contests for multimedia journalism

I’m a big fan of designer Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,” which lists 43 tips on how to have a successful life as a visual creator. Wanting to keep my work clearly focused on the audience, I, for years, followed #26 religiously: “Don’t enter awards competitions. Just don’t, it’s not good for you.”

Recently, however, I have found that there are some benefits to putting your work up against the best of the best and letting others judge it; often they see things, both good and bad, that you are too close to see.

Many of us who make our living working for news organizations often have a hard time breaking out of our institutional bubbles. We toil every day to make our stuff great, leaving very little time to enjoy the fruits of other journalists’ labor. When we see the winning entries of a contest, or serve as a judge for a contest, we expose ourselves to work we may not have otherwise seen and to the changes in multimedia journalism.

How contests are recognizing multimedia journalism

So what exactly is “multimedia journalism”? Text, photos, audio, video, interactive graphics? Or is it all of these elements combined? If one of the benefits of a contest like World Press’ is to help define the best practices of a medium, how do you get meaning out of results when the very thing you are judging is changing constantly in both substance and meaning?

Different contests acknowledge multimedia journalism in different ways.

The multimedia portion of World Press Photo’s contest is only in its second year, and its minimalist multimedia rules leaned heavily on linear storytelling that incorporated still photography as an element. That said, most of the entries consisted almost entirely of video. There was only one category and one top prize for the jurors to decide on. (The jury also selected a multimedia package that incorporated more elements — graphics, video, text and photos — for special recognition.)

In comparison, Pictures of the Year International (POYi) and Best of Photojournalism (BOP) have held multimedia contests for more than 10 years. Both contests have incorporated a multitude of categories in recent years; POYi honors seven different types of multimedia, while BOP honors eight. Somewhere in the middle is the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) which, like World Press, seeks to maintain a strong connection with traditional photojournalism. Two categories honor photography paired with audio; three honor multimedia packages.

How we could improve contests

In 1998, I served as a judge for the first “multimedia” contest held by POYi, the 55th annual Pictures of the Year contest. At that time it was called the “Electronic Division.” Most of our entries either consisted of photo galleries on Web pages or more ambitious undertakings produced and delivered on CD-ROMs. No interactive graphics, very little audio, and almost no video.

To say that things are different now would be an understatement of the highest order. Judging today, one routinely looks at 10-minute-long streaming videos while clicking around interactive maps revealing before and after satellite images accompanied by audio postcards from long-lost family members reunited thanks to Facebook. You get the point.

I think our current generation of contests could do a better job of accounting for the changes in multimedia journalism. I suggest creating an open contest (perhaps modeled after the Peabody Awards) with 15 winners. Anyone doing any form of “multimedia” can enter. The jury will pick the best journalism, regardless of format, and maybe pick a best of show.

This type of contest would allow impact and importance to trump form, and would be more encompassing of an ever-changing medium.

While this might create more chaos (and a potential entry sheet nightmare), in the long run we would have a contest as adaptive as the times we live and work in; a contest that would be truly “multimedia” and could help us embrace all elements of visual storytelling.

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  • http://twitter.com/Kastenskov Henrik Kastenskov

    The idea of an Open Contest is as brilliant as it is simple. The work of the jury however, will not be simple. It’s like measuring apples and pears and trying to figure out which common denominator (if any) is the better.
    Multimedia journalism is still in it’s infancy, no ‘rules’ have been set in stone yet and anything is possible. Which is exactly why this is such an incredible format to work with.

  • http://twitter.com/BenHoste Benjamin Hoste

    I completely agree that a large conversation would benefit both contests and the general production and use of multimedia by news outlets. However, my concern in a one award for all multimedia media types–having video face-off with audio slideshows and galleries and long from etc etc–is that one media type would trump others despite content. 

    For example, POYi separates out categories like general news, spot news, and feature photography with the idea being that if they were all mixed together perhaps one area would never be recognized, perhaps spot news would always take the prize. 

    Furthermore, I think you are dead on to say that the problems are a result of multimedia not yet being completely defines as a medium. But this is a good thing, this is exciting. And I would argue that the last thing we want to do is use contests to define the medium, rather the contests should be reacting to marketplace and adjusting their categories accordingly. Having a one size fits all, battle royal of multimedia might push content producers to favor the mediums that win contests and not the mediums that best fit their subjects.

    Is this problem annoying when it comes to contests? Yes, but it’s a champaign problem.