It’s the season for electronic journalism awards, and the holidays will be a flurry of activity with several January deadlines looming. In addition to Christmas shopping, TV news directors and journalists will be carefully choosing the perfect programs, filling out applications and wrapping it all in a dynamite presentation with a big bow.
“There’s a true science to submitting for awards,” said Susana Schuler, Raycom Media’s VP of news. “There’s a way to present well, to package and showcase well. You can spend really the whole year mining coverage to see if it’s good for awards. At some stations, there is a person employed to do just that. Others keep a bucket all year long, noting what’s good for the Murrows or the Peabodys. Every once in a while you get an incredible story, and there is a science to managing the process throughout the year, putting stories aside and building the file for awards. So when it’s time to submit, you don’t have to go to the staff and ask, ‘What did we do that was great this year?’”
The duPonts, Murrows and Peabodys may be among the most prestigious, but there are dozens of smaller awards that can provide a needed morale boost for the TV newsroom. “News people are competitive and crave feedback and affirmation,” Ms. Schuler said. “The awards tend to be something that stations use as a way to motivate when perhaps they’re not winning in the ratings. But it’s also affirmation of a job well done, and since we’re all doing so much more with the same or fewer people, it’s a nice reward for the staff to compete with their peers and be voted on by their peers.”
Small-market stations have as good a shot at bringing home the gold as do their big-market counterparts. “We divide categories by broad market size, not by kind of program or subject matter,” said Jonnet Abeles, director of the Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Awards, which presents its next round of awards on Jan. 16. “We have small markets compete against each other, as do medium and major markets, and we have a network category.”
The good news is that the number of awards is increasing, a boost for the station or journalist who might not otherwise give it a shot. “Every awards competition that I’m aware of is growing,” said David Busiek, news director at KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, and former chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which presents the Murrow Awards. “There seems to be more interest in people entering and being recognized for doing quality work.”
“The number of awards has grown,” said Marci Burdick, senior VP at Schurz Communications and former RTNDA chair.
Coleen Marren, news director at WCVB-TV in Boston, agrees. “I think the climate for awards is very healthy,” she said. “People recognize there are many levels that awards are good for: recognition, so that viewers know you do award-winning work, and it’s great for morale, with a celebration, internal memo and all the excitement. And it’s fun. Who doesn’t want to get a pat on the back?”
Ms. Marren, who has been a Murrow Awards judge for six years, notes that more limited budgets at stations have played a role in flattening the number of entries recently. “The entries tend to go up in years when there’s a big news story, like a 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “But the trend has been increased numbers every year. That seems to have leveled out because businesses have a set budget for applying for awards.”
The quality of the entries also has increased steadily. “We’re seeing great photographers and writers in small markets,” Ms. Marren said. “Students have learned to shoot videotape as young people, and honed their skills in high school and college. In a small market, you can have people who have been shooting or editing for five years by the time they get their first job. Young people have adapted to videotape and integrated it into their lives, from family camcorders to home editing systems. Video is part of young people’s lifestyles.”
So is online media. The RTNDA’s Murrow Awards offer categories for broadcast Web sites and non-broadcast Web sites, and other organizations with electronic journalism awards are working on ways to incorporate the growing field of new media. “We’re challenged to figure out how to incorporate online reporting,” said Ms. Abeles, who said the duPonts are accepting Web sites this year as supplementary material. “If a station has an exceptionally good on-air report and the Web site is substantially engaging, that added to the strength of their broadcast mission,” she said. “But we haven’t accepted Web sites as separate entities yet. We’re wrestling with that.”
Ms. Abeles points to the number of non-broadcast outlets incorporating original video stories on their Web sites. Then there’s National Public Radio, which has bought cameras for webcasts. “They are certainly a broadcast operation, and if they were to submit an online story that was visual, I guess we would judge it. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’re still trying to write out guidelines.”
The Online Journalism Association, founded in 2000, is the largest group of new-media journalists in the world, said Columbia University new-media professor Sree Sreenivasan, a founding administrator of the organization. ONA’s convention drew nearly 900 international online journalists this year.
“A couple of years ago, when the Washington Post won an Emmy, I said this is a real sign of how things have changed,” Mr. Sreenivasan said. “It tells you the Washington Post is now doing a lot of good video, the Emmys have changed because they realize some of the most compelling video on the Web is not from TV, and the audience has changed because they don’t always care where the video is aired, as long as they can see it and react to it.”
Some observers believe that, as the lines between broadcast television and online video blur, traditional broadcast TV awards organizations will have to recognize online journalism.
Mr. Sreenivasan also notes that online journalism is only the beginning. “Now TV stations need Facebook pages, mobile applications and iPod versions of newscasts,” he said. “You can’t sit back and say, ‘I have a great Web site.’ That was 1998. You have to reassign your resources. And I think it’s really important that all the awards contests recognize this and continue to expand and change what they’re doing.”
Ms. Marren has judged Web sites, which she said was “a terrific experience for me. It’s almost like watching breaking news. When I came back and looked at what we do, I adapted some of the things I learned.”
She hasn’t yet seen awards for broadcast TV’s use of mobile, podcasting or other platforms, but she predicts they’re coming. “I think ultimately there will be,” she said. “As all these platforms evolve, the people who work in those disciplines would like to be honored and respected by their peers and community.”