In Depth

The Awards Season

Calls are starting to go out for entries for the most coveted awards in the news business—the RTNDA’s Murrows, the George Foster Peabodys, the Society of Professional Journalists Awards, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ honors, Emmys of all stripes.

While the awards remain as prestigious as ever, this year there’s a huge unknown hanging over the process. With the current economic climate and so many news organizations reducing their staffs with layoffs, buyouts and attrition, it’s anyone’s guess how award entries will be affected.

Will entries be up as reporters look to improve their resumes and stations seek to stand out as they scrap for scarce ad dollars? Or will they be down, as news organizations cut expenses and decline to pick up the costs of entering?

The awards competitions aren’t inexpensive to enter: $250 to try for a Peabody, $375 for a National Sports Emmy, as much as $195 for a local station Murrow Award and $245 for a network Murrow.

Some awards organizations said it is too early to tell whether the economy will have an impact one way or the other. Entries for the Peabodys are due at the University of Georgia’s Grady College, which administers them, by Jan. 15, and as of the beginning of December, just a trickle had come in. But that’s typical, said spokesman Noel Holston, noting that the bulk of entries usually arrive after Jan. 1.

At the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, officials already are planning for a slowdown in the Emmy Awards cycle even though it doesn’t begin until January, when daytime and sports entries begin arriving, followed by news entries in March.

Last year, NATAS received more than 1,400 entries for news awards on the national level. Although the networks are generally good about supporting their shows and anchors, NATAS officials “are expecting a small decline as this economic crunch continues,” said Paul Pillitteri, director of communications. Traditionally, he said, when networks cut back, individuals enter on their own when they think they have special work that merits an award.

At the 19 chapters nationwide that hand out regional Emmys, the impact of an economic slowdown could be greater, he said, based on NATAS’ past experience when stations are in cost-cutting mode.

Overall, Mr. Pillitteri said, NATAS is speculating that it could see Emmy entries drop by 5% to 10% in the coming year. One exception is likely to be sports entries on the national level, which NATAS is expecting will be up, given last summer’s Beijing Olympics coverage.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association similarly always gets more entries for its Murrow Awards in a strong news year, and 2008 qualifies, with the election and the economic crisis dominating the headlines, said Barbara Cochran, the organization’s president.

“We’re not sure what to expect,” she told TelevisionWeek by e-mail, noting that awards budgets could be affected by stations’ cost-cutting. But with the entry deadline not until the end of January, “It’s much too soon to compare with last year,” she said, noting that the vast majority of entries arrive, in true journalistic fashion, close to the deadline.

RTNDA has made a change in its competition this year that it hopes will blunt some of the financial impact of entering: Entries have gone all-digital. Submissions must be made online and support materials uploaded though a secure system. That will eliminate the cost of burning CDs and DVDs, as well as paying for shipping, Ms. Cochran said, leaving RTNDA hopeful that the number of entries will remain even.

Traditionally, reporters at the local level have pursued awards in the hopes that the honors will help their resumes stand out as they try to make the jump to the big national markets, and that hasn’t changed, Mr. Pillitteri said. But not everyone is convinced that the old model applies in this tough economy.

At networks and at stations, in major markets as well as smaller markets, salary considerations are the dominant factor these days, said one industry executive who asked not to be named. Those who are being hired, the executive said, are “younger and cheaper.”

Even at the local level, according to this executive, winning an award “makes no difference. People are getting fired and you see on their resume that they have four or five Emmys. People with Peabodys have gotten fired. It’s not keeping them their jobs.”

For those who have been downsized, fellowships and journalism teaching jobs have become popular next steps, particularly for those in their 50s, said this executive. “It’s a natural offshoot.”

Of course, awards aren’t pursued purely for their potential for monetization; they are a source of pride and honor for work well done. The investigative reporting that wins awards is generally expensive to pursue, however, and that has some wondering about whether it will be a victim of cutbacks in the coming year.

At least some stations say they remain committed. Stations groups such as Belo and Hearst-Argyle said they will continue to invest in the journalism on which they have built their brands, but they will do it more cost-effectively and on different platforms.

“Everybody has to work a lot harder; this is the challenge of 2009,” said Fred Young, the outgoing senior VP who oversees news operations at the 26 Hearst-Argyle stations. “People are pulling together; we have to do it.”

Investigative reports now have Web components, he said, and more in-depth political reporting is being done on the stations’ Web sites.

WFAA-TV, the Belo-owned ABC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, has been making budget reductions throughout the past year, said Michael Valentine, the station’s executive news director. “But that doesn’t mean we have abandoned the core values of quality journalism that define this company,” he said. “News that is relevant to people in the community draws viewers, which helps the ratings, and that will not change,” even in a tough economic climate.