Friday, August 27, 2010

Another opinion on the "Awards Culture" at newspapers; plus, a Thelma Lou encounter

John has written two terrific posts (here and here) that referenced an "Awards Culture" at the Kansas City Star. As a former newspaper journalist myself, I have a few thoughts on the issue.

And a whole heap of mixed feelings.

There's no doubt that an Awards Culture exists at the Star and elsewhere. You can always tell when the Star is trying to win an award, and I'm positive the editors and reporters have conscious discussions about that very subject. The stories are always featured prominently, usually over several parts, and they may even include some sort of special logo to accompany each piece. These days the content continues online as well.

Here's my confession: I've done the same thing.

I wrote and assigned stories with the intention of using them to win journalism awards.

Here's the kicker, though, in my experience: writing to win awards can often produce high-quality, thoughtful journalism, but ironically, it rarely translates into actual awards.

I won several journalism awards over the course of my career, and not one of them was given to a story I wrote with the intention of winning an award.

There are a couple borderline cases, though. The most recent is a story I wrote in 2004 for the Wynne (Ark.) Progress. I was editor of that publication for about four months. During that time I met a woman named Leigh Smiley. Her son, Jeremiah, is autistic. Leigh and her husband Shannon were trying to raise $10,000 to buy a very special guide dog for Jeremiah.

After I interviewed the family, a very surreal feeling overcame me, the thought that if I wrote a good story, I was going to help this boy get his dog. But also, I thought I might win an award.

Both things happened. Jeremiah got his dog, and I won an award, honorable mention for feature writing from the Arkansas Press Association. To this day I consider the 1,300-word story the best thing I've ever written.

Another time at another newspaper, the Platte County (Mo.) Citizen, I met a historian who was chronicling the Interurban Railroad, which ran through the Kansas City area in the 1910s through the 1930s. I wrote a story about the railroad, and the historian's quest to save a historic interurban bridge. I researched the story for two months before I wrote a single word. During that process I got the feeling that I might win an award. We published the story over two parts, and afterwards we printed it up in a little booklet.

Again, I won an honorable mention for feature writing, this time from the Missouri Press Association.

That same year, something strange happened. The MPA gave out two honorable mentions in the feature writing category that year, both of them to me. The other award was for a story I wrote about a lady who built dollhouses. To me, the story was unremarkable, and certainly not written with any award intentions. I don't even remember submitting it for consideration.

And that's usually how it works. The awards are given to stories that exist organically, and not the ones created artificially just to win awards.

Every other award I've won in the business in three different states was for an "organic," not "artificial," story.

Still, though, I think there's a case to be made for writing to win awards. Let's take the Star's current feature about the Kansas City Mo. School District. Would that story have been written if the author and editors didn't hope to bag a trophy? Probably not.

If journalists are cranking out high-quality stories that engage readers and get people talking, does it really matter what their intentions are?

I don't know the answer. But the Star feature reminds me of one last incident to share.

I was once the editor of the Wednesday Magazine in south Kansas City. That job didn't last long either; I was fired for writing a column that angered an advertiser. But before that, I hatched a plan to write a year-long feature story about Southwest High School, which at the time had been converted into a charter school. I was going to chronicle the first-ever graduating class of Southwest by focusing on five extraordinary students. The five-part series would run at the beginning of each quarter and at the end of the school year. I also wanted to dive into the history of Southwest, which had produced some amazing graduates: director Robert Altman, actor Chris Cooper, authors Calvin Trillin and Evan S. Connell ("Mrs. Bridge"), and others.

The series allowed me to conduct my favorite interview of all time, a phone interview with a woman named Betty Lynn. That name probably doesn't mean anything to you. But Betty Lynn, a Southwest grad, played Thelma Lou on "The Andy Griffith Show."

That's right. I got to interview Thelma Lou.

I was canned after the second part of the series was published, and my successor didn't finish what I started.

As I stated before, I have mixed feelings about the "Award Culture." I think it can produce good quality journalism that wouldn't be done otherwise. But it's also a slippery slope, and can lead to situations like the Jason Whitlock ordeal at the Star.

This is just one man's opinion.

--Matt Kelsey

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