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Archive for June 27th, 2009

Awards, external praise don’t motivate me

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

So, today I have resolved to go back through all the stories (or at least the headlines of the stories) I wrote during the past year to see if any of them are worth putting up for my paper to submit to the state press association contest.

I usually don’t do this. And this year, as in the past, I had resolved to ignore such contests. But my editor sent about three reminders to local reporters, and then, before I left Friday, he made another pitch to us to get him our suggestions. I figured, whatever. If nothing else, I should pause to reflect on this past years work?

My issue with such contests goes deep. I’ve never entered my work in any, and any awards I have won have been the result of other people submitting it. I think it’s great some people use these contests as a way of setting a goal for their work. And I can see why people get a high from winning them.

I am just not motivated by external praise. Sure it’s nice to win, but I never have been that disappointed when I didn’t or overwhelmed with pride when I did. I trace this to childhood: I was always one of the top in my class, super involved in everything and a hard worker. I received a lot of certificates and awards throughout the years. I haven’t kept a single trophy or certificate. If you asked me, I would have to do a great deal of searching just to produce my high school diploma or college degree. I think they are stashed in a bin in a storage unit back in Ohio.

As far as my work today, I don’t need validation from a panel of judges sifting through hundreds or thousands of other peoples’ best work in hopes they find my gem. Besides even if they do, it’s probably one of a hundred gems they’ll award. Few prizes, especially ones a person in my spot could hope to compete for, are really that “special.” I mean, the Pulitzer is one thing, but a regional award? Think about it, there are four different circulation size contests in my state, and a dozen-plus categories for each. Multiply that by 50 states, and soon the certificate seems even less special. Besides, a community-serving story’s value is not diminished by not winning a Pulitzer or other award. Great journalism doesn’t need a gold star to be great.

I get enough positive feedback from the community I cover to know I’m doing OK. This week I received two phone calls, two e-mails and one thank-you card, each thanking or commending me for stories. I care a lot more that my community finds my stories relevant and helpful than a panel of strangers who don’t understand where my work fits in here. Maybe our community is better about contacting reporters than most, but I feel my work is appreciated by the community.

It often seems awards are a crap shoot. I often see “award-winning” stories/packages/Web sites highlighted that are not that impressive or even that good. (Maybe that’s because the definition of award-winning is so broad, see my comment on the number of awards.) I find myself wondering if all the entries were not great so they picked the best of the discard pile or if my taste is just way off. I always decide I just must not have the same vision. All the more reason to not enter contests: I hear enough from my community to know I’m on the right track, which means my vision might not line up with contest judges but it does with my readers.

Finally, I’m my own biggest critic. When I read old stories, and often when I read stories in that day’s paper, instead of thinking about the Sunday enterprise I worked very hard on, “I love this story,” I think, “I should have…” I don’t know if others feel that way. But it’s always been a challenge for me. When I was job hunting, I struggled picking clips to send. I knew I was at least as good as other kids at my school, but when I looked at what I’d written I couldn’t find seven stories I loved. Even today, when I have a far greater stack of stories to choose from, I don’t know if I could find seven I loved. It’s not that I’m a bad journalist. I have room to grow. But I think I’m good, especially given my age, my resources and my amount of output. But I am hypercritical. I can always find some quote I wish I’d left out, some angle I wish I’d over- or underplayed or some paragraph break I’d reconsider (this is especially true if bad editing ruined it for me). So it’s hard for me to even find stories I think are good enough — even if judged against a stack of similar also-rans — to bother entering in contests.

As I said before, I don’t object to people who thrive on such competition. Sure, it’s nice to earn some cash or even some solicited praise. Removing myself from the competition probably does those who thrive a favor. Fewer entries means better odds. They should thank me. ;) The bottom line, for me, though, is I get enough of a high out of knowing I worked hard and did a service to my community. I guess I’m one of the lucky folks who doesn’t need much more.

But I realize it’s not about me. So I’m going through the 534 stories that carried my byline or tagline over the past 12 months to see if any of them are worth considering. Whether I find awards validating or not, they reflect well on my bosses and my paper. Even if I don’t care, they do.