Sunday, August 28, 2011

Failing Circulation Forces Newspaper Awards to Break the Rules

Tenth 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.


Pete Klein said...

Whatever the rules might be or should be, I would only say this.
We seem to have reached the kindergarten level in awards across the board from actors to musicians to newspapers and beyond. Hardly a week goes buy without awards being dished out to some group for something. It's become a touchy, feel good world that adds up to nothing.
I never read, buy, watch or listen to something or someone based upon awards.
As the old stage saying goes, "Don't applaud. Just throw money."

Mark Wilson said...

At least as far as the NYSAPA awards are concerned, the reason newspapers—relentless advocates for transparency—do not report the depth of the fields they are competing in, very well could be that doing so would expose the awards as the counterfeits that they have become.

Reporting on awards in some papers has become such a preoccupation someone (the Onion, perhaps) should offer an award for excellence in unscrutinizing writing about awards.

Will Doolittle said...

Not sure what unscrutinizing means. Regardless, I don't know how you argue the awards have become counterfeits, but weren't before. I don't think they've changed much, even though some newspapers, as they've lost circulation, have gone down a category. Of all the stories I've been tempted to say "so what" to, this offers some of the strongest temptation. If the awards aren't a big deal, and you can make a good case for that, then why bother digging into the minutiae of their administration? It smacks of an obsession, either with the awards (unlikely) or with finding some way, no matter how inconsequential, to criticize newspapers in general and The Post-Star in particular.

Anonymous said...

to will doolittle, its fine hypeing big awards like the pulitizer but when ur constantly running articles patting urself on the back for winning dime a dozen prizes for cutseyest headline or coolest font, the awards thign loses it's impressiveness - even more when the awards brake there own rules.

Mark Wilson said...

Darn, you caught me making up a word. I should have used "faith-based."

While I agree with you that a corrupted awards for quality journalism is inconsequential, the point in drawing attention to the shortcuts the AP took in breaking its own contest rules is in its symbolism. To me the story represents not only a general decline in professional standards and an industry in disarray, but of a deeply-seated hypocrisy that has replaced some of your profession's higher ideals.

Like yourself, I am not a big fan of hypocrisy. My feeling about most awards is that they ought to be ignored. If they are to be used for self-aggrandizement, their merit really needs to be explored (particularly in a profession that holds other institutions public and private to the highest standards).

You say that you don't think the awards have changed much. Is that based on actual information, or a hunch? Do you know, for example, how many entries were submitted in each writing category in the Post-Star's circulation class? And how do those numbers stack up to the numbers of entries from five or ten years ago? Certainly a third-place prize in a field of four entries means a lot less than the same prize in a field of forty. At what point do you declare an award unworthy of taking up valuable news space in your paper?

Kudo's to Ken Tingley, by the way. His under-reporting of the number of Post-Star AP awards in his blog post showed he was so indifferent to the honors that he didn't even bother to count them. Pity that whoever lifted his blog post and put it in print didn't bother to double check.

Brian said...

I agree that newspaper self-congratulationism (now here's me making up a work) is largely inconsequential in and of itself. I've never put much stock in these awards (although the Pulitzer is a big deal) simply because there are so many organizations giving them out. But there's a symbolism here.

Journalism is a profession based on the premise that the details matter. Journalism a profession that demands transparency for others (and pats itself on the back for doing). When it refuses transparency itself, when it is sloppy with the details or fudges things, it undermines its own credibility when it makes those demands of others.

Here's a good story that illustrates this. My mom refuses to read TIME magazine. I once asked her why. She explained that in the late 60s, TIME did an article about something at her university. In one of the graphics, they mislabeled one or more of the buildings on campus. I said, "That's not a big deal." Her response was that if TIME botched the things that she did know, how could she trust them on the things that she didn't know? A bit harsh on her part? Perhaps but her logic does make sense. It illustrates the fact that credibility is fragile and easily undermined if not treated with care.

Will Doolittle said...

When I was a reporter in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, the NY Times would occasionally do stories about that area. Often, the Times would get something wrong, like calling Mirror Lake Lake Placid or Lake Flower Saranac Lake. It did tell me something about the reliability of the Times, and the medium in general. But this is nothing new. Newspapers have always been put together on the fly and have always gotten things wrong. What I find annoying with your tack, Brian and Mark, is the insistence that the quality of reporting and editing in newspapers has gotten worse. I don't think that is generally true. Lots of the problems you point out -- rich owners milking newspapers of profits instead of putting the money into improving the papers, sloppy and/or boring reporting and editing, lack of expertise among reporters who are underpaid -- have been with papers for generations. Some things have gotten worse. Technology, as well as being invaluable, exerts a pernicious influence on writing skills. But I think a survey of old-time journalists will reveal that journalists drink far less than they used to, and rarely do it on the job any more. And journalism, like many fields, is no longer a boys club -- a huge improvement over the past.

Brian said...

Will: I've been reading newspapers (including the Post-Star) since the late 80s so that's my frame of reference.

I don't think the plight of newspapers in general or the PS in particular is the fault of ordinary journalists. I think they do the best they can under the conditions they are faced with. When I see a reporter with four or five stories in a single issue, I wonder how good a job can ANYONE do if they have to do that many stories in a single day. As a former journalist, I know that even a relatively short story requires a fair amount of work.

One of the things you hear often is the asinine phrase "Doing more with less." I thought it was bunk when Gov. Cuomo Sr. said it. I think it's bunk as Gov Cuomo Jr. says it. And I think it's bunk when newspaper publishers say it.

You can't slash huge chunks of content-producing staff and expect the same product. Journalists may do the best they can but they're not superhuman. Decreasing resources mean you either do fewer stories and preserve quality or keep the same number of stories and cut corners. That's why I'd like smaller papers to spend less money on wire stuff so they can allocate more of their diminishing resources to local journalism (helping local employees). It seems to make business sense as well, since it's the one thing they do that, in many places, you truly can't find anywhere else. I don't read the PS for George will or Leonard Pitts (even if the latter is excellent); I read it for Maury, Omar Aquije and Don Lehman and, yes, yourself.

Mark Wilson said...


Brian seems to have covered much of what I wanted to say, and more articulately.

I would only add that I have been careful not to attack the quality of reporting at the Post-Star. Have even singled out a few of your reporters for outstanding work under pressure. But I have, in one instance, pointed out the enormous staffing cutbacks at the paper which, I believe, translates to lack of quantity of reports from the field and indirectly translates to a comparative lack of quality of the product (compared to what it had been). This may not be the case in every instance of staff cutting and replacement, but most certainly in the aggregate.

Add to that the loss of support and quality control staff (copy editors, proof-readers, even sharp-eyed ad reps), the result is, as you say, writing on the fly, only with fewer and fewer safety nets.

That said, you do what you got to do in these times. But from my vantage, it does your cause no good to have your editor constantly blowing smoke about how wonderful everything is at Smalltownpaper, USA. It strains a reader's credulity.

Mark Wilson said...

Re: the New York Times

Mary had a co-editor once at ADK Life who would say, Don't you love it when the New York Times gets shit wrong?"

Really. They can be absolutely pathetic at times.

Mark Wilson said...

Let me clarify. When I said ". . .a comparative lack of quality of the product," the product I refer to is the overall edition of the paper, not necessarily the individual story.