2009.11.18 A judge learns to grieve 2009.11.18

Written by David Green.


Journalists in Iowa judged Michigan’s Better Newspaper Contest last summer. On Friday we returned the favor.

I signed up to help knowing that great suffering lay ahead, but I arrived at the scene at 8 a.m. and got to work quickly while I was still awake.

And still enthused and ready to reward good work.

And hoping that this time I would escape the Five Stages of Judging Day Grieving.

How wrong I was. Only a few minutes passed before I hit that first wall—Denial, this can’t be happening to me.

I started off with Feature Page entries from weekly papers about our size. There was an entry that looked like an ad for the county fair. I tried another and found three pictures of the new ice cream truck.

Another showed three photos from the fourth of July celebration, including one that appeared to show storm clouds over a cornfield. There was no photo caption and I really couldn’t figure it out.

The next one had a photo of the school softball team plus the probable line-up. Then came a special section of Letters to Santa, loaded with Christmas greeting ads. Someone else passed off an election preview section as a feature page.

Maybe they just have a different idea of feature page in Iowa.

One editor subscribes to the bigger-the-better philosophy. A letter to the judge says, “Seven—count ’em—seven big pages of photos were included in this edition.”

I wasn’t that easily impressed and I felt Stage Two moving in: Anger, the “why me?” feeling.

I was forced to choose three examples of good work. I looked through them again, made my decision, and moved on to the entries from the smallest newspapers in the state.

I girded for the worst, but by the end I discovered they were actually better than the first batch—along with many exceptions.

I next chose Use of Graphics and the first batch included four entries. I only had to discard one, but I wanted to discard more. Just show me a clear winner and help me feel good about my work.

Later I dug into the photography entries and gave Stage Three of grieving a try: Bargaining. Mike MacLaren from the Michigan Press Association office walked by and I told him that I’d winnowed the entries down from 34 to these six and I wanted him to select the top three. Instead he just disappeared from the room.

I’m a small town boy and decided to give Agricultural News a try. I was befuddled. They’re publishing press releases and entering them as good ag news coverage. Show me an interesting story about someone. Dagnabbit, I was slipping back into Stage Two.

I packed up my choices before someone stopped by to see what I’d selected. I had reached the inevitable stage of judging: What am I doing here? What do I know about good quality work? Sometimes it happens when there’s too much good stuff; sometimes when there’s not enough. I was moving into Stage Four: Depression.

By now it was after noon and I noticed stacks of entries that everyone was avoiding. I took a look: Sports Stories.

Div. I: 26 entries. Div. II: 28 entries. I dug in and tried to control my eyebrows. What are the characteristics of Stage Four? Frustration, bitterness, feeling numb, perhaps suicidal.

I didn’t feel suicidal until I grabbed a packet of Sports Photos with 64 entries! I didn‘t want to do this, but I couldn’t just put them back in the envelope. The first pass narrowed the field to 18. This was where I really began to feel incompetent. I cut it down to seven; four of them had to go. 

The judging was advancing fairly well until the Iowa reps spoiled it by bringing out the college newspaper entries. Now I had to read the Wartburg Trumpet and puzzle over a Loras Duhawk.

I’ve told you about my suffering and my frustration, but I should mention that there were many good entries and some really fine work. You might think this statement represents the final stage of grieving: Stage Five, Acceptance.

You’re wrong. That came later when a name was drawn from an actual hat. One of the judges who stuck it out past 4 p.m. would receive a check for $100. My name was drawn, although there was no check to pass. I’m told it will be in the mail and I can accept that.

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