The results of the last in a series of annual press association contests that many Texas newspapers traditionally enter were announced last weekend, and the Bulletin received three first place awards from the West Texas Press Association. Earlier this year, this newspaper also did pretty well in the Texas Press Association contest, and itís always gratifying to get some pats on the back from industry colleagues at distant statesí newspapers who serve as judges.
As professional as we try to be, competitive juices usually surface at such times, and that always makes me wish we had done even better than we did. Itís difficult not to to sneak an envious look at the paper that won first place in the contest in which you took second, and wonder what they did that you didnít. Sometimes, when we finish first, I wonder what we did that they didnít.
I can remember three times in my career when our staff simply could not have done any better in a contest. Itís quite a thrill to be called back to the lectern time after time to receive yet another plaque.
One of those moments came during a convention held in San Antonio, if I remember correctly, and we were completely surprised by our success. The members of our staff who attended were very impressed with the competition. Entries were spread out on tables for everyone to see before the meal at which the results of the judgesí deliberations were revealed.
Frankly, we had all decided that wholesale changes were needed in our product. Each of us made notes about things we saw other newspapers doing, especially in design and photography. But we also gleaned some thoughts about feature story ideas and other concepts that we decided would take back to Brownwood.
ďOK,Ē we were thinking to ourselves, ďthe competition was pretty rough this time, but just wait until next year.Ē
It turned out we were our own harshest critic. The newspaper whose name was called repeatedly as the first or second place winner in category after category was the Brownwood Bulletin.
After the fifth or sixth time to have our meals interrupted to go to the front, I whispered to our then publisher, ďShould we tell them weíre going to change up everything when we get home?Ē He told me I shouldnít dare.
Today, I still find it nice to be at the top of the heap when the dust settles at such events, but I must admit itís not quite the ďdo all, be allĒ that it once was. Sure, itís great to have that recognition, but Iíve learned a great deal about the process over the years. Judging these things is not only an incredible responsibility, itís also a daunting chore. I discovered this firsthand a few years ago when I had an opportunity to help judge, along with our General Manager Bill Crist and representatives of numerous other Texas papers, that yearís entries from the South Carolina Press Association.
It was an exciting opportunity, or so I thought when I was asked to participate. Both of my parents grew up in South Carolina and I spent many summers and holidays there as a youngster. Iíve actually visited most of the cities those newspapers serve. But I didnít realize there would be so many entries, and that there were be so little separation between the quality of the ones I ranked first or second, and the large stack of others that were also-rans.
You do your best, but in the end, those contests are basically decided by what one or two newspaper people who live half a continent away like or donít like.
These days, I prefer to do well in a different contest we enter every day of the year. Itís the contest of our readersí opinion.
Iíve come to appreciate even more than winning first place in a press association contest that phone call from a reader in another state who tells me her grandmotherís photo was in the Bulletin a couple of weeks ago, and it was the best picture anybody in the family has ever seen of her. They wanted a copy of it so they could make a poster for a big birthday party theyíre planning.
What means even more to me than a sweepstakes victory is when I get a two-line e-mail from someone in the community with whom we work with professionally, but really donít know all that well personally, telling me he appreciated an opinion piece. Or, when a longtime friend famous for shooting straight with me mentions a story, and says, ďThat was good.Ē
These are the prizes what make working at a community newspaper worth the hard work.
It would be great to win every contest we enter, of course. But if I had to choose, Iíd rather win those small, daily prizes from the people who matter the most to us in this business. You are the ones who see everything we do, every day of the year, and who arenít limited to a handful of samples of what we thought were our best efforts during a particular 12-month period.
I have to admit we donít always win first place with you, our most important judges. But the great thing is, we donít have to wait until next year to do better. You grant us the opportunity to enter the contest again and again, and we get to do exactly that as soon as tomorrow dawns.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.