Failing Circulation Forces Newspaper Awards to Break the RulesTenth in a series by regular contributor Mark Wilson
(©2011 Mark Wilson)
Cascading newspaper circulation numbers are causing problems in more than advertising revenues, newspaper staffs, and corporate media stock prices. They now appear to have compromised the integrity of newspaper awards.
The New York State Associated Press Association (NYSAPA) announced its annual awards earlier this month for writers, editors, photographers and graphic artists working at daily publications across the state. A total of 240 awards (82 first, 80 second and 78 third prizes) in 27 categories went to numerous employees of 34 newspapers.
According to the official rules, entrants for the writing categories are divided into four separate circulation classes: Under 25,000; 25,000 to 50,000; 50,000 to 125,000; and over 125,000. At present, the Audit Bureau of Circulations lists only six newspapers in New York State with circulation between 25,000 and 50,000. While there is no indication of how many newspapers submitted entries to the competition, of these six papers, only three -- The Poughkeepsie Journal, The Observer-Dispatch of Utica, and The Post-Star of Glens Falls -- won any writing awards. Inexplicably, a fourth newspaper, The Watertown Daily Times, also won awards (three) in this class. The Audit Bureau of Circulations lists the daily circulation of the Watertown paper as 20,475—4,525 readers shy of the minimum standard for the judging class.
When asked to explain the discrepancy, contest organizer and AP New York Bureau Chief Howard Goldberg initially explained that because of shifts in newspaper audiences from print to online editions, the NYSAPA decided to use 2009 circulation figures for this year’s competition. Asked then why the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle won ten writing awards this year in the 50,000—125,000 class when its 2009 daily circulation was 130,506, Mr. Goldberg retreated. He clarified that for this year’s contest classes NYSAPA “mostly stuck with the print circulation numbers we had used for last year’s contest.”
This explanation raised a few questions:
*Did NYSAPA modify the circulation numbers for all participating papers?
If so, did they use the same formula for each paper?
*Why did the official rules fail to mention the change?
*How were the participating newspapers notified of the change in rules?
*And who authorized the change?
Mr. Goldberg declined the opportunity to answer these questions. Mr. Goldberg also did not share the number of submissions for each category within each class of the writing competition. Along with the four newspapers that divided 45 prizes for writing in the 25,000 to 50,000 circulation class, the over-125,000 circulation class distributed 39 writing prizes among four newspapers, and six papers with circulation between 50,000 and 125,000 shared 45 prizes. In the most competitive class, 18 newspapers with circulation under 25,000 shared 44 writing prizes in 15 categories.
The Associated Press determined its New York State awards prestigious enough to send out a wire story nationwide. Likewise, eight of the 14 newspapers whose employees were honored for writing in the three least competitive classes devoted newsprint to coverage of their own successes. None bothered to report the narrowness of the classes in which they competed.
At The Post-Star in Glens Falls, Editor Ken Tingley, who sits on NYSAPA’s Board of Directors, announced his paper’s new honors in a blog post that cited 33 awards. A story soon followed (attributed to “staff”) in his paper’s business pages under the headline, “Post-Star wins total of 33 state Associated Press awards.” As a matter of fact, the newspaper actually won 34 awards—none for fact-checking. In a sign of these hard economic times for the news publishing sector, four of the nine Post-Star staffers awarded first prize in the NYSAPA contest have left the paper since their honored work appeared in print.
As for NYSAPA’s apparent breaking of its own rules in an effort to beef up award classes and lend the contest some semblance of legitimacy, Howard Goldberg claims that contest reform will be on the agenda at the organization’s September board meeting. Perhaps his board might consider scrapping the self-indulgent exercise altogether. It has passed the point of resembling Prize Day at Low-Self-Esteem Summer Camp far more than a valid gauge of professional merit in a benighted industry.