Thursday, June 9, 2011

On judging the newspaper awards

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 8.)

I’m in two minds about competitions and awards. I’ve been involved as a judge in restaurant awards, journalism awards and even cheese competitions (a peculiar combination, admittedly), but I've grown ambivalent about them. I feel the same about wine competitions, which I’ve never judged but have had the opportunity to observe.

On one hand it seems that every professional or craft group, whether it’s the pompously named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Takaka women’s needlework circle, feels the need to recognise meritorious performance and provide some sort of benchmark to aspire to.

That seems a valid objective. Competitions and awards are an incentive to people to perform at their best and a means of celebrating outstanding achievement. They are also a useful way of bringing promising newcomers – whether they’re actors, writers, chefs or winemakers – to wider attention.

Yet I can’t help having misgivings, to the extent that I’m reluctant to accept any further invitations to be a judge. There is a randomness and subjectivity about most judging processes that often makes me sceptical about the outcomes.

Take wine competitions. It’s accepted in the wine industry that clever winemakers can craft a wine that stands out among dozens of others. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best, but it gets noticed.

Besides, wine judges are sometimes expected to taste and assess a couple of hundred wines in a day. Even disregarding the inevitable element of subjectivity (because even expert opinions differ sharply), how can that deliver a dependable result?

This partly explains why many wineries, including some of the best, simply don’t bother entering. They prefer to concentrate on pleasing the people who really matter – the people who buy their wines. Yet there is pressure to enter wine shows, because wines that win high-profile awards almost invariably become big sellers. The commercial spinoff is hard to ignore.

But enough about wine. What prompted this soul-searching is that I recently helped judge the Canon Newspaper of the Year awards.

I should state here that the judging process was probably the fairest, and least likely to throw up a dodgy result, of any competition I’ve been involved in. Three judges independently and separately read the same papers and came to their conclusions without consulting each other.

We each awarded points to every paper covering several different criteria – the quality of the journalism, the design, the extent to which the paper connected with its community, and so on. The results were returned to the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the points we had awarded each entrant were totted up and averaged out.

So although we might have each come up with different winners in each category, the overall result was likely to reflect a consensus. That seemed to me an admirable way to minimise any possible bias, conscious or otherwise, and to avoid any anomalies. An odd decision by one judge, for instance, would be offset by the verdicts of the other two.

Moreover, the fact that we never discussed our scores meant there was no chance for one persuasive judge to talk the others around to his or her point of view. I have seen this dynamic at work in other competitions and it can skew the result.

So if I was happy with this aspect of the judging process, what were my reservations?

I suppose my main concern is that ultimately, a judge in Christchurch, Dunedin or (in my case) Masterton isn’t the best person to assess how well a newspaper in Invercargill, Nelson or Rotorua is meeting the needs of its readers. The judge can award a score based on how it measures up to strict journalistic criteria, but only the people who read the paper every day in those communities can know whether it meets their expectations.

In this respect I sympathise with wineries that refuse to enter competitions on the basis that it’s not the opinion of illustrious wine judges that matters; it’s whether their wine pleases the consumer.

That raises another point. For practicality’s sake, newspapers are invited to submit four editions from throughout the year. They are free to choose any four they like, and inevitably select those that show them in the best light.

But just as a clever winemaker can make a wine that catches the judges’ attention, so a newspaper can choose four editions that show the paper at its best but may not necessarily reflect the paper’s performance day-in, day-out. Again, that’s something only the paper’s readers can judge.

Ultimately the judges’ decision says that this or that paper performed outstandingly well, or at least better than the others, on four days. This is not necessarily a definitive measure of a paper’s quality but it’s probably the best we can do.

Clearly, no judge can be expected to wade through a year’s papers. Even after carefully reading four entries from each paper (a job that takes days if it’s done thoroughly), you tend to get cross-eyed and wonder whether your critical faculties are getting blurry, just as a wine judge’s nose and palate inevitably become jaded after sniffing, tasting and spitting all day.

Interestingly enough, several papers submitted editions that covered the same big news events – namely the September 4 Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River tragedy. I had to wonder about the wisdom of this, because dramatic events are not hard to cover well. Journalists invariably rise to the occasion when they have a major story on their hands.

When parts of a large city are reduced to rubble or 29 miners are trapped underground, it’s almost difficult not to produce an impressive paper. Obviously it’s vital that newspapers tell such stories well, but what really sets a good paper apart is the ability to sniff out and report things that no one previously knew about. That shows a newspaper is burrowing under the surface and asking awkward questions.

If all this sounds rather downbeat, I should add that judging the awards left me feeling generally positive about the state of New Zealand journalism. Yes, there are some papers that look good but are weak in terms of content – all sizzle and not enough steak, as they say. But there are many others that are determinedly keeping the alive the best journalistic traditions: reporting what needs to be reported, engaging with their communities and holding politicians, bureaucrats and scoundrels to account. New Zealand would be unimaginably poorer and more ignorant without them.


The probligo said...

"Yet I can’t help having misgivings, to the extent that I’m reluctant to accept any further invitations to be a judge. There is a randomness and subjectivity about most judging processes that often makes me sceptical about the outcomes.

Well said, but I would like to turn that around for you.

I am a photographer of very small talent, and as a member of a local club of photographers I quite enjoy entering images for competition.

I am occasionally sceptical of the outcome of such judgements myself, not because I think them too harsh but because the judge (most frequently singular) has not been "helpful" with the criticism. The same judge when examining entries from those who have the talent and skill to produce "good and better" images most frequently will apply much higher standards in reaching his/her decision.

What I am getting to is this. If you have a skill, a talent, I believe it is a greater sin not to use it (in my case by passing up the opportunity to critique and help photographers of very small talent).

Those winemakers who pass up the opportunity or invitation to enter wines for competition are, in my opinion, losing the benefit of honest and skilled judgement of their product. Even a winemaker of great reputation (and I have seen/heard this happen to one of NZ's top landscape photographers) can suddenly find that his skill has become stale and in need of refreshment.

At the other end of the scale is the situation where a judge (in my case looking at an image) says, "I wish I could have done that!".

So please, if you are invited to pass judgement on your peers (a situation I will never face I am sure!) do not hesitate.

Be honest with yourself and with them in your judgement.

The probligo said...

And, on the wine-tasting / competition note, I see in the news this morning that the Aussies are "banning" NZ wines from their competitions.

Whatever next?

Geoff said...

Perhaps the answer is for the judges to randomly select four days and then examine those days' newspapers? It would certainly improve the spelling and grammar of my local paper (I hope)