April 21, 2003

What happens when more than 12,500 entries arrive at Syracuse University for judging? How are the judges chosen? Why are U.S. papers lagging behind international papers? Are they, really? What does it take to win?

I asked Marshall Matlock, who has directed the competition since 1988, for an overall primer and for his views on the contest. Matlock is assistant professor in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

THE CONTEST: NUTS AND BOLTS

More than 90 volunteers shuttle the entries around, interested in seeing the work and hearing the judges’ comments. People are clamoring to help, said Matlock.

Judges are kept busy over three days in Syracuse, looking at entries spread throughout several rooms. Arranged in groups of five, the judges don’t often have the opportunity to talk between groups. In the case of a conflict of interest, a judge appointed as a “floater” is called in.

Choosing the right judges is tough. “It’s hard to select the right 26 people who represent an overview of society with the intelligence and backgrounds needed to do the job,” said Matlock. “Forget those unknown things like if a person is a morning person or a ‘night person’ or a person who can get along well with others,” he said.

“We look for a good balance by talent and work experiences, regional areas, publication circulation sizes, nationalities, leadership ability, sex, etc.,” he said.

Past judges have been designers, editors, publishers, photographers, reporters, and illustrators — even good, old-fashioned readers. Nominations are made throughout the year. SND member or not, a person may even nominate himself if he or she wishes.

The competition committee tries to find out everything it can about a candidate before making the final decision. It takes quality time and lots of debate, in some cases, said Matlock. “Most of the time we are right in our choices. Every once in a while we probably could have made a better choice — but we have never made a bad decision that I know of,” he said. Committee members keep all discussions about judges confidential. The list is not announced until the contest is over.

Fifteen years with the competition has given Matlock a unique perspective. He shares his thoughts on the state of newspaper design:

ON THE QUALITY OF ENTRIES:

“I think there has been an overall improvement in the quality of entries in the past eight to 10 years. Part of this may be our access to better tools to do our jobs. Better software, faster and better computers and better presses when a publication makes this big investment. Also, I give credit to the sources that are available to teaching journalists and designers. I think that the designer, after all this time, has come of age. Editors are finally realizing the importance of reader-friendly pages. To be reader-friendly it takes a marriage of good content with good design. Put the two together in the same package and you’re more likely to get the audience interested enough to continue to buy and read your publication.

“Obviously, it takes more than hardware and software to get the job done. It takes well-educated young people to replace those of us who are retiring from the field. Today’s graduates, coming from all sorts of backgrounds, are better trained than they were even five or six years ago. Some journalism schools have excellent graphic programs, even though some of the purists don’t believe this. Today, a designer needs to have a well-balanced education in order to understand the importance of the content, I think. Design is more than learning art, learning how to use color and learning how to use a grid. It’s learning how to take all the elements and present them to an audience so that audience is helped in scanning the publication’s content. If we can assist in doing this for the reader then we are providing a service that’s as important as the press itself.

“Today’s college graduate has to be ready to enter the design world running. He or she can expect, with today’s competitive market, to learn on the job. The learning has to take place, or at least most of it, before he or she entered the job market.”

ON HOW U.S. NEWSPAPERS ARE DOING and WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN:

“We have found some excellent work being done in our newsrooms around the world. I have to agree with many of the judges in the recent past that much of this excellent work is coming from international publications, not necessarily publications in North America. Editors and designers from North America, assuming this observation is true, should not be upset or feel threatened by this observation. It would be worth their time and effort to find out why this is the case. I have my ideas as to why it may be true but it includes a long list.

“Thus, if I had to put it in one sentence I’d have to say, it’s paying attention to detail. By this, I mean that many publications pay attention to page one or a section front but forget what follows inside. This just doesn’t work. It’s like having a wonderful display window in a department store, but nothing inside when the customers are excited enough to enter the front door. It seems like more international newspapers pay attention to the design and content of inside pages than we do in North America. I know this is not a popular statement but I think it’s a true one from my narrow perspective. Many past judges have agreed with this, for what it’s worth.”

While Matlock has the benefit of year-to-year contest experience, a newly-named competition coordinator jumps into the fray each year. This year, it was Andrew Phillips, graphics editor of the Star-Ledger in Metuchen, N.J. Here are his thoughts on the competition:

“I knew from experience that good judges make a good contest. I tried hard to find people who I knew would be smart and fair and collaborative. But that’s hard to find without knowing the judges personally. In the end, I relied heavily on people I respect and on the recommendations of people I respect.

“It’s a huge operation requiring dozens and dozens of volunteers and clockwork coordination. I think people might be shocked to see how quickly decisions are made. Judges pass right by some really impressive work. The entries that get recognized need to stand out from the pack at first glance.”

Phillips also has some thoughts on what it takes to win: “This is key: If you enter work in this contest, you have to accept the results with a grain of salt. There is no objective evaluation of what we do. There can’t be. One set of judges can give a medal to work that doesn’t even rate with another group. Small things like time of day, lighting, and mood really do affect how your work is judged. So, you can’t be too proud if you win an award, and you can’t be too disappointed if you are overlooked. That said, I do believe that the very best work always does rise to the top. Rest assured that SND’s best of show is our industry’s best work.”

You can see the list of winners and their entries at snd.org.

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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
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