In his April 12 column, headlined "Of Prizes and Everyday Rewards," Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president led into a piece about the Pulitzers with a surprising series of statements. "Before I begin, let me stipulate: Journalism has too many prizes. Way too many," he wrote. In his view, the proliferation of competitions are "a distraction from what's important for newspapers. They can send the wrong message, that what's important is recognition from our peers, when what really matters is serving you, the reader." He adds that some groups, including "the Colorado Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists," would be well advised to "dump their contests and focus instead on improving the craft itself."
A bold declaration? Perhaps -- but it would have meant a helluva lot more if on March 30, less than two weeks earlier, the folks at the paper had resisted the urge to publish "Rocky Staff Wins 15 First-Place Awards in Colorado SPJ Contest," a lengthy compendium of commendations earned by the likes of reporter Kevin Vaughan, who was also a Pulitzer finalist, sports columnist Bernie Lincicome, and opinion-giver Peter Blake, recognized with the Keeper of the Flame bauble. Of course, Blake's keeping the flame somewhere other than the Rocky these days, having left the tabloid last year after accepting a buyout.
Irony aside, these honors only came to the journalists in question because the Rocky entered their articles in the Colorado SPJ competition -- something that Temple wasn't forced to do by anything other than fear that if he held back, the Denver Post would rack up an enormous number of victories and look like the better paper in comparison. Likewise, he didn't have to authorize a chunk of increasingly scarce newsprint to share this information with the public. But he did, just as he's done innumerable times in the past.
Indeed, both the Rocky and the Post have long used award contests for self-promotional purposes -- and prior to the joint operating agreement that linked the publications, the articles that resulted often went to comic extremes in order to denigrate the respective rival. Take this excerpt from a February 2000 Message:
A pair of journalism awards presentations sponsored last week by the Associated Press and the Colorado Press Association, respectively, prompted energetic spinning by both Denver dailies. In the AP contest, the Rocky Mountain News was named best large newspaper and took home eleven of seventeen first-place awards on the way to racking up twenty honors, as compared to two first places and thirteen baubles overall for the Denver Post -- a comparison the Post chose not to make (its article about the competition didn't mention the News at all). The math got even trickier when it came to the CPA: The News boasted that it won twelve first-place nods as opposed to the Post's ten, while the Post said it took home nine first places (one less than the News claimed) of what it said were just fourteen top editorial honors available.
That doesn't add up -- but Denver's newspaper war seldom does.
More recently, the Rocky and the Post went into a self-congratulatory frenzy over their performances in the Colorado Associated Press and Colorado Press Association awards. As noted in this More Messages blog from March 3, the papers' consistent success in such races is hardly surprising given the small number of news operations they vie against. For instance, the large newspaper division once included four entrants: the Rocky, the Post, the Colorado Springs Gazette and Westword. However, Westword was subsequently booted due to complaints from the other papers, whose execs apparently didn't like the idea of a lowly weekly cutting into their haul.
If Temple really wants to take a stand against newspaper-contest overdose, he can stop entering as many as he does -- but that's unlikely to happen. If the Rocky actually sits out next year's Colorado SPJs, knock me over with a plaque suitable for framing. -- Michael Roberts