Photo credit: Flickr user Tony Hammond.
Every year about now journalism contest winners spring up like a riot of crocuses (the Pulitzer Prizes the best example) and my thoughts float back to the Oakland Tribune.
Critics of journalism awards say they are too many – like best baby contests or even dog shows – to mean anything. But I can remember a time when even the smallest award helped keep us going at the Trib. Picture a city wracked by an earthquake (1989) and an urban firestorm (1991). Chunks of our advertising and readership lost to natural disaster, the Tribune was a flat-broke daily paper before it was fashionable.
Our newsroom was talented. Yet it had taken pay cuts. It was ambitious. But it might be out of business in a month or even a week. It was wonderfully diverse, yet incredibly young. We experimented but without money.
Say what you will about prizes. They helped. We won more than 150 awards for our journalism from roughly 1986 to 1992 when I was city editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor at the Trib under Bob and Nancy Maynard, the first African-American couple to own a major mainstream paper.
An unbelievable total to some, the number 150 is conservative. We entered every contest and counted every piece of recognition. Some awards recognized the journalistic quality of our work. Others told us the community felt it mattered. Awards were psychic dollars and resume-builders. Together, they motivated our staff, spurred new ideas, led to better work and brought us closer to our community.
Aggregated, the number said something about what the newspaper was, did and cared about. We ran full-page ads titled “Journalism at its best.” The one on Nov. 1, 1992, touted 32 recent awards, reminding readers, “In the last three years, the Tribune has earned more than 125 awards, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize.”
No award was too big to count, or too small. They were national, state, regional, local. They came from the AP News Executives Council of California/Nevada and the Society of Professional Journalists, but also from the Bay Area Girl Scout Council and the National Council of Christians and Jews.
The prizes reminded us that we did a lot for Oakland that no other news organization could or would. Our journalists uncovered a network of patronage in the city’s schools; revealed and helped the babies of cocaine-addicted women; showed how high-priced trade schools were preying on the unemployed; explained why the Cypress Freeway collapsed and how the state’s double-decker freeways needed to be torn down; revealed how fire department errors caused the Oakland firestorm, traced the roots of the nation’s savings and loan debacle; pioneered the hiring and training of journalists of color as well as gay and lesbian journalists; provided even-handed, independent coverage of the first Persian Gulf War.
The staff exposed a large number of wrongs: emergency room deaths; misspent transit district travel funds; a major construction company hiring homeless people as asbestos removal workers; a local agency meeting for seven years at great expense with no accomplishments; wealthy suburbanites using public water to create lush gardens during a horrible drought; Chinatown sweatshops. The list could go on for days.
There was – and is for others today – a practical aspect of these awards. It kept focus on the work when it would be easy to think about the collapsing economics of our daily newspaper. When Bob Maynard’s prostate cancer forced him to sell the paper, the new owner wanted only about half the staff. The awards on our resumes helped nearly everyone find a new place.
Our message in promoting – and probably over-promoting – the awards was a simple one: the Oakland Tribune was a special paper for a special community. As editors tend to do, I’ve run through a lot of our exposes, but most of our awards were not for investigations. We ran special reports on neighborhoods, local leaders and rising stars; covered local arts and sports thoroughly and well; and had a great food section. We engaged our community with advisory boards, “meet the editors nights,” an “open newspaper” philosophy and a brigade of columnists from all over town.
I make no apologies for being proud of what we did. I was thrilled this week, listening to Marty Baron tell the Washington Post newsroom it had won a Pulitzer for helping expose the National Security Agency’s ubiquitous spying program. I wasn’t just moved to hear about the role of great journalism in open societies, but I know how winning that prize can increase newsroom momentum.
At Knight Foundation, we try to help journalism find its best possible future in the digital age. Here, I’ve seen how funding awards can call attention to work that’s being done at the intersection of public service and digital media. Knight has sponsored awards in data journalism, public service in online news, media innovation, news innovation and for outstanding young journalists.
In SearchlightsandSunglasses.org, I argue that more journalism awards should consider public service and community impact in the judging. That’s what the biggest prize in journalism – the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service, which The Post and the Guardian US just won – is all about. More of our contests should aspire to that. We should encourage experiments, such as one underway at the Livingston Awards, to reach out beyond the world of journalism.
Great journalism is all about communities. One of the several times the Oakland Tribune was about to go under, I asked readers for letters of support. There wasn’t time to mail them. People drove to the guard station on Franklin Street, by the score. These were letters not from customers or subscribers so much as they were supporters – supporters of a newspaper that Bob Maynard called “an instrument of community understanding.”
Miraculously, the Tribune did not close. In my book, that was the best prize of all.
Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation.