Entering Journalism Contests: Why and How – Repost

Article posted originally Feb. 2014


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Entering Journalism Contests: Why and How

By Gary Lindsay

Early in my tenure as adviser at Kennedy High, the reasons why I put off entering students into journalism contests seemed so compelling – the contests came at the worst time of the year when I was swamped, they were so much work, and I wasn’t that crazy about the work my students had been doing anyway. Maybe that is why the previous advisers didn’t compete. Then a second thought followed. Maybe that’s why the journalism program wasn’t very good.

So we started by entering the IHSPA spring contests and the Quill & Scroll Media Evaluation. Other contests came later. An increasing flow of awards and recognition followed and we began to refer to our publications as “Award Winning.” What follows are a few points gathered from my own experience and from my inquiries to  advisers around the country.

So why exactly, is it important to enter contests?

  • Contests validate your teaching and your program. School administrators and the public are looking for outside validation that schools are doing a good job, and contest awards provide this. Karl Grubaugh, newspaper adviser at Granite Bay High School, in California wrote that he has students enter every contest that comes his way. “I tell kids we apply for staff awards to protect us from the knuckleheads who would want to slow or shut us down, and we apply for individual awards so they can add things to their resumes.”
  • Students value them. Nearly every graduation party I attend has a display of the awards the graduate earned, many of them though journalism contests. They are on display because the student and parent valued them. Lori Oglesbee, adviser at McKinney High School in Texas wrote, “Contests give students perspective of their work from outside sources. Critiques from contests are valuable for both growth and confirmation. Every award for the year is posted on our bulletin board in little cut-out trophies. They love the affirmation of excellence, and it infects the rest of the staff to achieve at a higher level and compete.”
  • Contests motivate students to work even harder.
  • Contests stimulate better coverage and quality, and provide needed feedback. Contests and evaluation services that judge the overall publication offer what Beth Kavan of Grand Forks High School in Nebraska called, “invaluable feedback.” Each fall, she uses the critiques her publications get to set up a checklist of things they need to do and keep doing, and this guides the staff toward improvement.
  • Awards won by students adds to the adviser’s prestige.

What are some tips for making it easier to enter:

  • Ask students to self nominate. I ran off large numbers of the submission forms for individual contests, first filling in things the students would ask me about like the adviser’s name and email, school size, and the school address. I then put these forms in a place students could access and prepared a sample submission as an example. Students put their entries in the nearby basket, and one of the hardest parts of the process was done.
  • Make it a student goal to create quality work, and then make judging this goal a part of your student evaluation. I asked each student to self assess their work quality, and to collect work to support this evaluation. I let them know at contest time that if they did not have anything to submit to contest that they were admitting that they did not produce quality work.
  • Assign the submission task to a student. Mitch Eden, adviser at Kirkwood (Missouri) High School has a suggestion for large staffs. He makes entering contests part of the job description of his managing editor. That editor gets input from the other editors, and does all the preparation leaving him to just sign the form. I love Mitch’s idea because this is a step in helping students take psychological ownership of the publication.
  • Plan ahead.  Pull the best pieces from every publication and put it in a contest folder, so when the time to enter a contest rolls around, you have a head start on the process.
  • Offer perks to students participating in contests.  Cathy Wall, newspaper adviser at Harrisburg (Illinois) High School offers bonus points, treats and in-house awards as incentives to students. These may be especially important when entering contests is not yet established as an important part of students’ publication work.
  • Invest in the students who will be returning. If you have a large staff and get a lot of students to participate, consider entering only the students who will return next year. Often, the contest results will come back after graduation, so invest in those who will be on hand to celebrate the wins. The graduates won’t mind.
  • Keep your bookkeeper informed. Often, red tape can make it hard to submit to contests because even if the publication can afford to enter, the process for getting the check is complicated. Some bookkeepers I worked with were better than others, but early communication is the key. Upon first notice of a contest take it to the bookkeeper and plan together for payment.
  • Get funding. If the cost of submitting for contest or evaluation is too much for your publication budget, consider outside funding. Ask you principal if there is money set aside that might be used for this. Crowd funding websites like Donors Choose would be a good bet. Businesses in the community that might not consider placing an ad in the paper might well make a donation earmarked for this purpose.

Entering contests and media evaluations is certainly a bit more work for advisers, but it really is the key to moving your program forward. I urge all advisers to take the first step – open your web browser, search for state and regional contests, mark your calendars and start planning.

Gary Lindsay, MJE
JEA Mentoring Program
NJ-PLC, North Central Regional Director