In Depth

Awards Season: It's What You Say, Not How You Say It

 By Elizabeth Jensen

Can a local TV station’s environmental reporting stand up to that of a major newspaper, or a public radio station’s to a dedicated Web site?

News organizations vying for a prestigious National Journalism Award this year in categories including environmental reporting, Washington reporting, and business and economics reporting will find they have unusual competition: The administrator, the Scripps Howard Foundation, is taking an experimental everyone-into-the-pool approach with some of its awards.

“We’re looking for what’s the best journalism; we don’t care what the platform is,” said Mike Philipps, the foundation’s president and chief executive.

The upheaval that has roiled the news business in the past couple years has caused the awards programs that honor the work to also rethink their approaches. Many awards administrators have already been adapting for more than a year to a drop in the number of entries, as companies cut back on paying entry fees. A thornier issue for some has been how to deal with the emergence of hybrid forms of digital journalism, where Web articles complement TV reports, newspapers supplement the journalism on their pages with online video, and radio reports have companion Web slide shows.

The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards have always segmented the awards categories by producing organizations (radio, network or local television, independent production company) and market size. Although the awards honor excellence in broadcast journalism, this year for the first time there was a category for Web-based productions, an acknowledgment of the changing business, said Abi Wright, the program’s director. It drew 40 entries.

Before the judging took place, she said, she worried about what standards the group would use to judge the Web productions, noting that not all Web journalism can tap into the same resources as, say, network television. Those fears were unfounded, she said, noting that, based on the entries received, “There is really substantive reporting going on that’s on the Web,” and the standards used to judge it remained the same as used for other categories in past years.

The range of projects ran from newspapers doing online reporting with a broadcast element to “more unique, nontraditional outlets doing interesting collaborative work,” Wright said, adding, “The jury was really engaged by what they saw in the category.” Award winners will be announced in January and the awards handed out Jan. 21.

The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences allows any broadcast — TV or Internet — to enter in any national News and Documentary Emmy category, but a couple years ago it added three categories for “new approaches,” which award innovation, as well as good journalism, said David Winn, the program’s director.

“They are not exclusively for Web-based stuff, but they do tend to attract that stuff because that’s where the innovation has been happening,” he said. No definition of what constitutes an innovation is given. “It’s up to the entrants to convince the judges that their work is innovative in some way,” Winn said.

Among the winners in September was Globeandmail.com, which interviewed Taliban members using cell phone cameras; the Detroit Free Press and its Freep.com for a “new approach” documentary on a Detroit boys’ home; and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in the Arts, Lifestyle and Culture “new approaches” category for livehopelove.com, featuring poetry, music and slideshows on the topic of living with HIV in Jamaica.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, which administers the Edward R. Murrow Awards, went so far this year in acknowledging the new realities of the business as to change the name of the organization. Now known as the Radio Television Digital News Association (or RTDNA), the organization is also working on a new category structure that will reflect its aim to “broaden our mission to bring in the digital journalist,” said Stacey Woelfel, the group’s chairman.

Last year for the first time, the Murrows accepted video entries that appeared exclusively online. The final awards criteria for the upcoming awards, with an entry deadline at the end of January, aren’t expected to be made public until early December, Woelfel said, but the new structure is expected to “allow people to enter the work they are doing now, that’s not exclusively TV or radio.”

The Scripps Howard Foundation’s experiment with lumping all media into a single competition may be the boldest step yet, and it may or may not work, Philipps acknowledged. The categories chosen for the test were those that had a smaller number of submissions, such as Washington reporting, “where we’re getting fewer and fewer entries,” he said, as news organizations close bureaus.

Overall, the National Journalism Awards, given in 18 categories with prizes that start at $10,000, have attracted between 700 and 800 entries in recent years. Entries are due Jan. 30.

The trial program has gotten some “pushback,” Philipps said, “from those who think you can’t compare print and broadcast.” Broadcasters, he said, “first raised their eyebrows, and then print people said, ‘how are you going to judge that?’ ”

Indeed, how to do the judging, he said, “is what keeps me awake at night.” The judging panels of three to five people will include representatives from across the journalism spectrum and they’ll “be asked to tell us, ‘what’s the best journalism?’ ” If they don’t agree, he added, “that’s my nightmare. But I’m all about risk taking.”