How judging at SND Digital works

Every year, the Society for News Design hosts its Best of Digital Design competition and brings more than a dozen judges from across the United States and around the globe to review 1,000+ entries.

Sisi Wei, who helps facilitate the program, sat down with a student volunteer to chat about the competition, how judges are selected and how the overall judging process works.

sisi wei

Sisi Wei, ProPublica

How does judging work at SND Digital?
Judges are split up into three teams, each with three judges. Each team has a primary focus: news, features, graphics and the World’s Best.

During judging, teams are assigned one category at a time. As judges go through the entries, they can vote on whether a piece should at least receive a bronze medal.

If all three judges vote yes on a  piece, it triggers something pretty unique to this competition: a medal discussion. You can also think about it as a medal debate, where as a group, the judges whether the piece should be a bronze, silver, or gold medal. All decisions must be unanimous.

What happens when judges are a part of a specific organization? Are they allowed to judge their organization’s entries?
They’re aren’t.

Judges are not allowed to vote on an entry from an organization where they work or have worked in the last 18 months.

When judges review entries, they all have a button they can push that asks: “Should this entry be sent to a conflict judge?” If they say yes, the entry is immediately assigned to  a “conflict judge” who evaluates it instead.

During medal discussions, everyone who works or has recently worked at the organization being discussed is asked to leave the room — this includes judges, volunteers, even the facilitators.

Why did the facilitators of Best of Digital Design decide to implement that rule?
It’s so the judges can feel free to express how they feel without any pressure that people from the organization are listening. It gives them free reign to say things that help them work through their thoughts without needing to think about anything else. We’re essentially trying to free the judges from any external influences.

Why is the competition held somewhere like Medill, why not host it at a newsroom in D.C.?
Traditionally, it’s always been held at a university with a journalism school. Hosting the competition at any news organization might subconsciously bias the judges.

How are judges picked for SND Best of Digital Design?
Each year we pick about a dozen judges. We think about judges in a very holistic way, and we’re always trying to create a level of diversity. Diversity means many things when it comes to SND digital judging. First, it means your traditional sense of diversity — race and gender. I’ve only been involved with running the competition for the last two years, and that’s been really important to me.

Diversity also means having people from newsrooms of different sizes and types. We want people who represent nonprofit media and for-profit media, we want people who represent academia, as well as currently active professionals. We also want people to represent small, medium and large-sized organizations.

Are two judges allowed to work for the same organization? 
In a given year, unless somebody is switching jobs from one company to another, we do not invite any two judges who are working at the same organization.

What else is taken into consideration when facilitators ask judges to the competition?
Something else that we think about is international versus local versus national. So we want representation from journalism that is outside of the United States from places that cover nationally the U.S., but also from places that only cover local journalism as well.

How are judging teams created?
We’re also looking at judges who have infographics experience, general page design experience and then also various kinds of multimedia design experience. We pair them together, factoring in all of those things, into teams of three, which is why picking judges for us often can take weeks.

Are judges allowed to judge the competition more than once?
Judges are only allowed to judge for two years. They don’t have to be sequential years, but we have never asked a judge to judge a third year unless we wanted them to become a facilitator of the competition later. The goal here is to make sure that the competition isn’t judged by the same group of people year after year, and that it also isn’t filled only with people that the facilitators know.

If you’re interested in nominating a judge or helping as a facilitator next year, email [email protected]

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