SND35: Keeping awards in perspective

I wrote this series — and will do so again in the future — to drive thoughts on competitions such as the Best of News Design before work has been entered and judged, rather than after. I hope you will enter the competition because I think it contributes to development as journalists, and because I think it is valuable in many ways to SND. It’s not a problem-solver in an industry context. Rather, it’s an opportunity to improve individually and as a society.

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With that said, there’s a proper place in our careers for competitions, and that place is secondary to — and as a product of — our day-to-day jobs as journalists.

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I’ve heard for most of my career — and it has come up in discussions of this series — about designers and editors who prioritize this competition or others ahead of their obligations to their audience and to journalism. Do I think it happens? Yes I do, and I think it’s a shame when it does. I think putting accolades first risks credibility on every level credibility matters. How would we feel about a hard-hitting investigative series if we knew the reporter researched, reported and wrote it to win a Pulitzer? I think we’d at a minimum have a hard time taking it seriously. Our work is no different.

Do I think it’s prevalent? I honestly do not, for two reasons:

First, it just seems to me that the industry doesn’t allow it. I think too many newspaper owners, chains, publishers and boards of trustees have emphasized cost-cutting and operating leaner than sanity dictates to allow staff members to prioritize accolades. In an era of hubs and templates, the time for working for awards (or anything other than your readers) has eroded past a point of practicality.

And second, my experience hasn’t shown it. I have worked for six very different papers in the past 12 years and never once seen or heard signs of a colleague or supervisor doing his or her job with a goal of winning SND awards. On one hand, six is a small sample. On the other hand, if the practice were rampant, the (lies, damn lies and) statistics say I’d have crossed its path.

It’s important to say now that I’m willing to be wrong in that opinion, though. But say that I am wrong. If priorities are indeed backwards, those who value the competition can take solace in a cold, hard fact: SND’s not awarding misplaced priorities. Take a look at the last three Best in Show finalists in the print competition:

El Mundo’s World Cup Preview (2010): A sports preview section built around photojournalism, pulled together by consistent writing, and focused on a theme that exceeds anything presentation alone can convey.

Svenska Dagbladat’s breaking news coverage of the Norway shooting (2011): Deadline stories, photography and graphics covering an unspeakable tragedy.

Washington Post’s election coverage (2012): A full year of election coverage that was directed from the very highest editors of the paper, with design not only playing a crucial role in sharing information but working to convey tone and balance for a full cycle.

Those are three very different bodies of work that have taken the top honors in the past three competitions. None of them stand up to an argument that anything other than teamwork, editing and a commitment to journalism drove the published product. That’s where our priorities as designers and journalists should lie, and that’s what the recent competitions have held up as the best in the world.

This is a topic that could be discussed for days, so what I’m about to write is oversimplified. That said, in the interest of keeping this series brief (yeah yeah yeah, didn’t happen), I’ll offer a couple of thoughts on an approaching contest-worthy work in deference to readers, content and to your employer.

• Take note of standout work after it runs: This is a design-specific post, but it applies across the board. The time to consider whether work done by you or your colleagues should be considered among the best is after it has published. Before a project you’re working on (prints, posts), your dedication has to be to the project and your audience. It’s easy to imagine the quality of writing dropping if a writer is focusing on a Pulitzer while a story is coming together. It’s easy to understand how a photographer focusing on POYi during an assignment could compromise the resulting images in relation to a story. Design is no different. Content overplayed or underplayed in the name of aesthetics can stand out for the wrong reasons — to colleagues, readers or contest judges alike. Assess only when it’s over and published. Hang on to the best work rather than work to which you may be attached.

• Second-guess before you enter: Get outsiders’ opinions. Get colleagues’ opinions. All it takes is an ego to lock into the notion something you did is the best in the world. The danger being that the world doesn’t share your view. Find out what others say too. The more objective, the better. The ideal entries are ones that stood out after they were published and that stand up to scrutiny weeks or months later. Hitting both of those points gives you a legitimate contender. If you have the discipline and patience to ask those questions in hindsight, you can keep questions about accolades separate and secondary from your role as a journalist.

This is the last of four parts on the Best of News Design Print Competition that will run before the International Entry Deadline.

Part 1: This is Why It Matters

Part 2: The Competition’s Infographics Equation

Part 3: Where Are They Now? A Decade’s Worth of Medalists

Part 4: Entering Without Designing to Enter

And lastly, the prologue from February 2013 in the wake of SND34 that inspired this series.