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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Here come da judge

by Philip Martin | January 11, 2022 at 3:10 a.m.


I'm procrastinating.

By close of business this Friday, I'm supposed to submit a list of winners in a contest for the [redacted state] Press Association. I will make that deadline because I don't miss deadlines, but I now wish I hadn't volunteered to judge these entries. Back in October, it was easy enough to take on.

While it's not exactly hard work, it does take time to read and think about the entries and to jot down a few comments, and I never have enough of that. So I have decided that I will begin reading the entries as soon as I file this column.

Or maybe after I file the next column. But today. At the latest, tomorrow morning.

I've judged these sort of things off and on for more than 20 years, and sometimes it's more fun than others.

Usually I'm assigned opinion pieces, columns and editorials, but I've judged spot news, sports and entertainment features too. It's easier to grade the hard news stories. I look at the answers provided and the questions raised and think about the potential impact the work might have on the community of readers it is directed toward.

I read them as an editor, thinking about how they might have been improved. I trust that I can discern what is exceptional from what is merely very good; what is average from what is unfortunate.

The opinion pieces are tougher, and I approach them in much the same manner a critic approaches a work of purported art. I try to hold myself open to them in the same way a willing subject must approach a stage hypnotist if the trick is to work. You have to suspend your skepticism a bit, to give the magic a shot at moving you.

Not that I need to be convinced or won over; one of the skills you develop in this job is the ability to temporarily detach from your prejudices. What we believe is our business, and it doesn't have anything to do with how well a columnist or editorialist crafts a piece. Not every opinion contrary to one's own is disingenuous; not every dissent is rooted in selfishness or calumny.

Sometimes people wonder how people can argue about important things and still maintain a friendship, but some of us can remember a time when we could hardly guess how our friends voted. One of the ways we have gone wrong is we have made a sport of politics and encouraged people to follow it the way our maiden aunts followed soap opera stories.

Politics is boring. Or at least it should be.

That doesn't mean it's not important, but as important as it may be, it is not life.

Some of the writers I read when judging newspaper contests understand the primacy of private life, but too often the pieces I read feel like talking points, like paraphrased think-tank handouts. It's a symptom of the general paucity of imagination that infects our society, where everyone assumes everyone else has chosen sides and is flying colors and that there's no alternative to subscribing to either Fox News or CNN--unless it's OAN or the Palmer Report.

What bothers me more is that some years everything I read feels dry and stilted. The newspapers used to be filled with lively writing and nuance; these days everyone seems to be auditioning for a cable shout show. There's lots of dull, flat writing out there and a lot of look-at-me virtue signaling. What bothers me more than the terseness of the modern vocabulary is a certain indifference to rhythm and the balance of a sentence. I wonder where all the editors have gone, but then I think back on the past 40 years and understand too well.

It makes me appreciate my colleagues. A lot of what I see happening in other newspapers doesn't happen as often in this one.

Other years I'm surprised and delighted by what I read; talent is hardly scarce, and it often manifests in unexpected places. I've found wonderfully tender and engaged writers submitting correspondence columns to rural weeklies. I've read lots of intelligent, insightful commentary. Sometimes human beings even manage to be genuinely funny.

I take judging seriously, even if I'm a skeptic on the general subject of newspaper contests. The big prize, and there is only one big prize--the Pulitzer--tends to be bestowed on obvious winners for obvious reasons. And that's fine, they don't give Grammys to merch-table CDs sold after shows by independent artists, and they don't give Oscars to budget-less movies shot on prosumer gear on the director's weekends off.

Every decade or so the Pulitzer committee will go off book and find someone, like Jeff Gerritt, editor of the Palestine (Texas) Herald-Press, who won a prize for a series of editorials on the Texas criminal justice system in 2020, but mostly--and understandably--the prizes get distributed to the big coastal entities.

The rest of the contests come down to the whim of someone like me. If I'm honest, I try to be fair and to think about my choices, but I'm really just picking favorites. I'm sure lots of second-place finishers and honorable-mention choices have looked at some of the winners I've selected over the years and shrugged. As they should, because, yeah, it's just my opinion.

I'm glad that in most cases I'm judging anonymously.

You should understand that no serious newspaper person really thinks awards matter. We all know that if you hang around long enough and send out enough clips and pay enough entry fees, sooner or later you'll win something. (Failing that, you can always nominate yourself for a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer committee "discourages" people from describing their work as "Pulitzer-nominated" just because they sent in an entry, that doesn't stop some people from doing it.)

Most people in most walks of life don't have much of an opportunity to collect plaques and certificates; they just do their jobs and get paid for it. Excellence is, to paraphrase Don Draper, what the money is for.

On the other hand, probably because journalists are, as a tribe, susceptible to the lures of psychic income, it is nice to win one. You can put it down on a résumé and add "award-winning" to your handout bio or column tagline, if you like. Maybe you'll even get a bonus check.

So I need to crack open this file, and start looking at these entries from Big 10 country.

I've put it off long enough. And I don't miss deadlines.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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