Finding pearls in Woebegone
At the risk of making some soon-to-be announced winners question the value of their prizes, I went to Topeka Friday to help judge the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's annual contest.
I always help with the smaller weeklies, figuring I know the expectations under which such papers function. It's always an interesting experience reading about dysfunctional communities. Police chiefs are always getting fired, ambulance services changed or city councils are engaged in near open warfare.
Aside from seemingly reading about endless Lake Woebegones with nearly exclusive Scandinavian names, the Wisconsin newspapers offered more of the same this year, plus a large serving of stories on the August tornado outbreak that hit Wisconsin.
I try to read every story, but when you're judging a stack of 50-plus stories, it requires triage. Stories hopeless from the start are quickly put in the discard pile. Stories of solid work but not extraordinary are put in another pile for possible revisits if none of eye-popping quality turned up. They did, making me envious of the writing.
The largest category I judged was that of features for papers somewhat larger than The Explorer. There were stories of Amish barn raisings, of the ghost of Lavender Lily said to haunt a lonely road near a rural cemetery, reflections on decades old murders, and lots of stories of hometown soldiers returning from Iraq.
About five of the stories stood out. I awarded a first, second and third, which I defended with brief comments, but I'll readily admit it was entirely subjective. All of the top five were equally deserving.
The best compliment I can pay them all is that I still remember the stories -- those of a mother who shed herself of an abusive husband, the autistic child who learned to communicate with the help of a dedicated teacher, the crusty old roadside sweet corn vendor, the man who honored his Civil War ancestor with a gravestone, and the woman who learned the real story behind her son's death in the Korean War through a picture she saw by chance in a magazine.
Some of the top stories explored serious issues, while others brought insight to the commonplace. Some were developed from ordinary beat work or assignments, and others took some enterprise or eyes that could see the unique in the everyday. All the stories were compelling. But no matter how intrinsically interesting, the stories would have been lost without a reporter investing the time and talent in bringing them to the page.
I can't swear I selected the right winners, but I can honestly say I rewarded the hard work of people dedicated to their craft.