One judge’s perspective: Chris Ross

Chris Ross, design editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, has been a longtime facilitator here in Syracuse. This is her first year judging the competition, so the SND Web Desk asked her to keep a running diary.

Monday, 9 p.m.

Once back at the hotel, we regrouped for the annual trek down the block to Varsity Pizza. Afterwards, many in the group headed for Faegan’s (the bar next door to the pizza place). Others with early flights headed back to the hotel.

I feel I need a little time to get the full perspective on all of this, but I know it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be an SND judge, and I only hope I’ve done it well. Among the best things I’ve seen this weekend are a South American paper’s transformation from a homely broadsheet to a smart, beautiful tab; a European newspaper magazine’s metamorphosis from good to great; an astoundingly high level of design work from another European newspaper’s magazine, plus all the other teams’ medal awards that we got to see this afternoon.

Coming here — either as a facilitator or a judge — is an eye-opening three days of immersion in the best visual journalism in the world. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. It makes you want to go home and change the world — or at least your newsroom.

Monday, 6 p.m.

Our last day of judging started just like all the others, with all of us climbing onto the bus for Drumlins around 8 a.m. It was a tired group this morning, especially those who had stayed late at the bar for the karaoke festivities. The long-form team’s first assignment was to tackle the last of the redesign categories — full regularly appearing sections. We dragged our chairs along with us again so we could sit and spend time with the work. As I made the rounds, there were familiar sections that we’d seen in the overall redesign category, plus many more that were new. There was a lot of good work in this category.

When the entries were uncupped there were several winners, and there also was a buzz among us about one in particular from a European paper. It was a magazine redesign; the “before” version was solid enough, but the “after” seemed like a giant leap to us in terms of its new design, photography and art direction. In our medal discussion, most of us quickly became comfortable with the idea of giving a gold medal for that entry. And after some discussion, we had a unanimous vote. It was our first and only gold award.

During the morning, Jonathon Berlin talked to me about an idea he was shopping around to all the judges. He was proposing a sort of “Jerry Maguire” statement, possibly as an intro for the contest book, pointing out that we’re at a time when our industry is in crisis and so we must find ways to respond. Jonathon’s thinking, which made a lot of sense to me, was that this year it was important to acknowledge what’s going on in the business, but at the same time pointing out that we saw a lot of positive steps toward innovation in the 30th Edition entries.

Before lunch, we also started working on our judges’ statement, which came together fairly quickly, with some tweaking after lunch. We all felt that we’d seen a very high level of talent, that we’d seen signs that papers were experimenting and finding new ways to reach readers. We felt that the overall quality of the entries was quite high. That discussion evolved over lunch into sharing ideas for helping our own newsrooms to get more comfortable with experimentation and change.

After lunch we had one last category, the magazine special sections. After the intense redesign categories, this one was a treat, with lots of good work to consider. We gave several Awards of Excellence, and in the following medals discussion, we rewarded one European paper’s magazine special sections with a silver (for one issue) plus a Judges’ Special Recognition (as a body of work) for its consistently high level of execution, from the idea stage through the design process.

Once my team was finished, there was a little time for one of my Syracuse guilty pleasures — digging through the pile of discarded entries along the walls of the ballroom, looking for pages to take back to show the folks at home. You are not allowed to take any of the discards until the contest is over, but then you can dumpster-dive to your heart’s content. A number of the student facilitators had shopping bags full of pages to take home and study. It’s like a treasure hunt; every pile of pages you turn over reveals something interesting. I grabbed as much as I thought I could stuff into my small suitcase.

Once all the teams were finished, we met as the full judging group — all 27 of us — to look at the gold awards and consider whether we wanted to nominate any of them as Best of Show. Before we did that, however, we had a healthy debate about the merits of Jonathon’s “Jerry Maguire” statement, and the decision was to do it as a Judges’ Special Recognition. After that, one gold award was nominated as Best of Show, but after a secret ballot, we learned there would be no Best of Show this year.

Sunday, 9 p.m.

The day started with the last of the Category 10 entries, the inside pages and doubletrucks. It was a relatively small group of entries, and an easy way to start the day. But when the entries were uncupped, there wasn’t a single winner. It was the first time that had happened to our long-form team. From the voting, it appeared that we weren’t as much on the same page as we’d been yesterday; there were a number of 2-3 near misses.

After that, we tucked into the Category 2 entries for regularly appearing news sections. These weren’t big categories, but they were slow-going, because we had to pore over whole sections before making a decision. After a while, leaning over the tables for a long periods made my back and shoulders start to ache. But this time, we ended up with a few winners.

I’m losing track of the timing, but at some point, we also judged the Miscellaneous entries (Category 19). It was a true hodgepodge of pages, projects and promotions that didn’t fit into normal catgories. It was a nice break from the action, and I think we ended up with a single winner in that category.

By mid-afternoon, team captain Steve Cavendish told us our next category was the Big Kahuna — Overall Newspaper Redesign. Before we started voting, he advised us to think about what we wanted the standards to be for choosing winners. We spent some time philosophizing about whether dramatic change was essential, or whether obvious improvement was enough for a win.

We spent several hours with these entries, each of us choosing a different spot to start and pulling up chairs so we could sit and spend time with each entry. It was both the most difficult and most fascinating category we have judged. In a few cases, newspapers had undergone transformations; many others had made big steps toward improving typography, content and organization. When the entries were uncupped, there were a number of winners and several medal contenders, but once again there was a lot of variation in our voting. And for the first time, there was a bit of discord over several entries that had not made the cut. Discussing this on our way to dinner, a bit of buyer’s remorse set in. We talked about whether it might be better to judge each entry as a group so we could hear the arguments of others, but we weren’t sure how that could work.

After judging the redesign of regularly appearing pages, we had a spirited and lengthy medals discussion for the Overall Redesign winners. Several entries were discussed for silver, and one was pushed hard for gold. We even considered a Judges’ Special Recognition to reward one newspaper’s efforts toward innovation. In the end, we had gave silver medal, and the others remained awards of excellence.

Meanwhile, that pile of unopened entries has dwindled, but there’s still work to do tomorrow.

Before we headed for the bus to our hotel, Steve asked us to start thinking about our judges’ statement about the work we have seen. But that will have to wait until for tomorrow, because it’s karaoke night at the bar.

Saturday, 10 p.m.

This very long day started with a discussion led by our team captain, Steve Cavendish, who advised us to be tough but fair. He read us all the definitions of the awards, and suggested we start each category by walking around and taking a good look, and also putting a yellow cup on any conflict entries (either the work of your own paper or a competitor). In just a few minutes, we were under way with our first category, 5D (Special News Topics: Editor’s choice, local/regional).

Looking back on the day, it was the first category that seemed the most intense. Not so much because of the size or subject matter, but because it was really our warm-up category. I found myself worrying over foreign headlines, lingering over entries where I felt I was on the fence, and questioning myself about the use of space on the larger entries. It wasn’t until I finished that I realized I was “the slow one.” Cavendish told me that over the years, he has noticed that former facilitators often take the most time as judges; perhaps because of our past experience, we are over-thinking our choices.

I was certain that I was voting alone on many entries, but when the first entries were “uncupped” it became obvious that we were mostly voting as a unit. Most often it’s 0-5, sometimes 1-4. The ones that make you want to stop and consider are the 2-3 votes, especially when you are one of the three voting no.

By the second category, I started to feel the rhythm of the competition. I found I could decide quickly on many entries, but I still needed to linger over some. At times, I wished I could pass an entry by, move on and then circle back later for a fresh look. But because of those scary pre-judging dreams, I wasn’t about to disrupt the flow. After a while, I was no longer “the slow one” – at least not every time.

By the end of the day, we have made our way through all of Category 5. We have had our first medals discussion for those Category 5 winners. We’ve finished the massive Category 9 (Special Coverage / Single Subject) and started Category 10 with the special section covers.

It feels like we have looked at tons of entries, but the stack of categories set aside for our team is still huge. And in that stack are some bruisers: all the special sections, the regularly appearing (whole) sections. We are told that if we keep up a good pace, we may judge some or all of the redesign categories.

We still have a long road ahead.

Saturday, 7 a.m.

It’s been about five months since Dennis Varney asked me at the Las Vegas SND convention to be a judge for the 30th annual competition. Now the first day of the competition is finally here.

I’ll be one of the judges for the “long-form” work – all the projects in various categories.

This is my fourth trip to Syracuse. For the past three years, I’ve been a facilitator, and last year I was team captain for the photo and small newspaper entries. So, at this point I’m very familiar with the process. And the long-form work has been one of my favorite areas to work at the competition. It’s inspiring to see all the big projects done by newspapers around the world.

When Dennis talked to me in Las Vegas, I felt honored to be chosen as a judge. But I have to confess that it’s also a bit intimidating. It’s a big responsibility to judge the work of so many talented journalists.

I’ve actually had a couple of dreams about the judging. You know the kind of dream where you show up for a college final, only to realize that you haven’t ever been to class before? In this version, I find myself lost among the rows of contest entries, and I can’t figure out which ones I have and haven’t voted for.

I’m hoping that won’t actually happen.

About Tyson Evans

Tyson Evans served as SND’s President in 2018 and is a member of The Society’s executive committee. He is a senior editor for strategy and product at The New York Times.