'Contest season' is a time to reflect and learn

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

Updated 1/6/2020 1:19 PM

As we step into a new year, it's only natural to reflect on the one just past. For news organizations, this is more than an introspective exercise; it's also a precursor to what we might loosely call "contest season."

We constantly review and critique our work to see how we can do it better for people in our communities. Over the coming weeks, we'll also be looking at past work to see how it stands up against that of our competitors and colleagues from other areas. That process, too, tells us much about what we are doing well as well as how we can improve.


It is a varied and comprehensive effort. We receive invitations from regional, state and national organizations laying out a vast array of categories for judging stories, opinion articles, photographs, headlines, design, online presentation and more from 2019. We study the rules and our work, submit for consideration items we think deserve recognition and then wait. Within a couple of months, we learn whether contest judges agree and how they stack our entries alongside those of other organizations.

We don't get a complete picture from the results. Most contests limit the number of entries we can submit in given categories, so invariably we find ourselves unable to submit some projects we think deserve judges' attention. Some contests judge us against other organizations our size; in some, we compete against larger newspapers with vastly more resources to work with than those available to a locally focused, community-oriented suburban newspaper. Every contest is different in the range of work it examines -- some contests evaluate work in dozens of categories, from breaking news stories to photographic personality portraits and informational graphics; some may be limited to as few as four or five categories focusing on very specific writing or photographic projects. And the judging, of course, is highly subjective, with the results reflecting the fluctuating judgments of particular individuals in a particular year.

But they are always instructive, especially when certain projects emerge to win or place in multiple contests. Last year, we were honored to see many 2018 projects get recognition across a spectrum of contests. Our staff members won a record 46 awards and the newspaper took the top prize in the statewide Illinois Press Association contest. Staff members won 13 prizes and the newspaper also took the top honor in the regional Northern Illinois Newspaper Association contest, and with strong recognition in the statewide Associated Press contest, regional Lisagor Excellence in Journalism contest, national Inland Press Association contest and others, we received some gratifying and telling indications of things we may be doing well.

So now it is time for us to look back at our work from 2019. We'll use our best judgment to identify work we think will resonate with judges, but we'd certainly welcome any thoughts you have. Were there specific stories, photos or other projects that you found particularly moving or memorable from the year? If so, drop me a line at jslusher@dailyherald.com. It's one thing for journalists to ponder what might resonate with contest judges; it can be something very different -- and perhaps even more instructive and more valuable -- to hear what resonates with the judges we value most, our readers.

I hope you'll take a moment to reflect along with us on the past year, and let me know work you believe deserves special attention.


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