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View from the judge's seat: spotting a winning entry.

OVER THE PAST 10 years or so, I've been asked to judge hundreds of editorials and personal columns in competitions by various state press associations.

I'm not sure exactly how this came about. Well, I guess I do know.

A former editor of my newspaper one day said, "Hey, Jim, you wouldn't mind judging some of these contest entries, would you?"

Since he was the one who doled out pay raises, gave assignments, hired and fired people, and so forth, I promptly replied, "Jump, sir? How high?"

Or words to that effect.

In any event, since that fateful day, somehow my name got on some secret chain letter of contest judges. Every year, like clockwork, a letter will appear out of the blue saying something to the effect of:

"Dear Mr. Ewing,

"Your name has been selected as a potential judge for this year's (STATE) Better Newspaper Contest. . . ."

Over the years, in fact, it has become a rather delightful pastime.

I find it:

* Fascinating.

* Rewarding.

* A pain in the butt.

* And, of course, all of the above.

My usual method is to put the voluminous package that arrives in the mail in a prominent spot in my study at home. Once ensconced in the spare chair or dangling over a table top's edge where I almost tip it over every time I walk by, it sits there and stares at me until about two weeks before the deadline.

Then, with grim resolve, I ask when my wife plans to be out of town or otherwise occupied for a weekend and then suggest that she do so soon - and take the boy with her.

That done, I block two days - Saturday and Sunday - in which I do nothing but read entries.

Sad but true, the worst ones are pretty easy to spot. But I make myself read each and every entry - in case there's a surprise lurking in there. And, besides, there must be some reason someone sent this entry in, thinking it might be the best that particular newspaper in that particular state has to offer.

The best usually jump out, too. And, often, they come from unlikely quarters.

Personal columns

Sometimes, it's pretty obvious who thinks he or she is the hottest stuff around, and by deigning to enter a contest, ought to win it without a thought - often literally without a thought.

Other times, it's obvious the particular piece was written in blood, one drop at a time.

Some of the best writing I've read has come from small-town newspapers where the writer knew his or her subject so well, it just reached out and grabbed whoever glanced that way. Sort of like Mayberry, but Otis had a wreck and is charged with manslaughter for drunken driving; Helen has to decide if she wants to abort Andy's child or opt for single parenthood; Aunt Bee's been hitting the vodka pretty hard; and Opie's getting condoms at school.

By the same token, some of the absolutely most self-serving mindless drivel has leaked from the pens of the supposed high and mighty.


Why is it that newspapers in state contests feel compelled to submit their august opinions about matters on which they, in all probability, will have little if any impact?

Sure, the plight of the Bosnians is tragic. But is the Pallatunia Times, circulation 1,200 and hopeful, really going to have a major impact on those suffering millions?

Sure, I know, it is the obligation of a newspaper to shape public opinion on matters great and small. But if you're going to impress this judge, you would be better off writing about how even one human being's plight in Pallatunia was made better by the power of the ink smearing readers' hands in the Pallatunia Times.

This is not to single out small-town papers, some of which are obviously really vibrant recorders and shakers of their communities. The big papers have their foibles sometimes, too.

Every year, I usually get a few entries that are submitted under the reverse of "you can judge a book by its cover." It will come expensively bound, with a cover sheet written by some high mucky-muck in the organization about how columnist Joe Blow is a vital voice to the community, an award-winning journalist whose prose shines through, stunning readers with his soul-searching, heart-rending, penetrative ratiocination.

Goolllllleeee, thinks such a bumpkin as I, wish I had me some of that, whattayacallit? Rat-eo-incinerator!

Usually, I have to quit smirking for a while before I start on those. (A hint to the packager: You may be doing your golden-haired ratiocinators a disservice. Just put the entry in a manila folder like everybody else's and let the writer do the convincing.)

The big papers often make the same mistake as some of the smaller ones. Just because a columnist - or an editorial - deals with a big issue does not make the column or editorial any bigger or better.

Once again, I don't care if columnist Joe Blow writes about some earth-shaking issue in the Godzilla Gazette, circulation the size of McDonald's hamburgers now sold. If what is written has no human impact, no telling thought, no life, no spark, no feeling, no effect, it is still the lifeless lump that limped onto the page, "big news" or not.

As writers, we don't reflect the light of the news; as opinion-makers, opinion-shapers, we shine our intellectual lights on matters great or small to highlight their importance to one and all. The gemstone is our humanity, which we all share.

Once again, the same holds true for Joe Blow as for the Pallatunia pencil-pusher: Even if the subject is The National Debt, what does it mean to the average guy or gal in Godzillaville?

It's one thing for a columnist or editorial writer to say, "The nation is awash in red ink, to the tune of $4.087 trillion. Tsk. Tsk."

We agree. Tsk. Tsk. Then, we turn to the comics.

But what if the columnist or editorial writer said:

"Dear Godzillaville Taxpayer,

"You know the value of a dollar, right?

"So, reach in your pocket or purse and pull one out.

"Look at it. If you started paying $1 every second, it would take you 127,000 years to reach $4 trillion - the amount of the national debt, which is the result of all those hundreds of billions of dollars of deficits the nation has been running for years.

"So, do you think Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole - and all those other lawmakers up in Congress - are really helping the country debating a deficit reduction of $496 billion over five years?"

What I'm trying to say is that no matter what the issue, there must be a local angle of some kind, some way to make an issue count to the reader.

Those are the types of writing that will make me, as a judge, put that entry in the "winners" pile.


If I were going to offer some advice to any editorial writer or columnist, I'd say:

* Be smooth, be succinct, be specific - but most of all, do you duty. Don't shirk the responsibility to say something, plainly, forcefully if necessary.

* Use passion in writing. Sometimes, you want to tickle your readers. Sometimes, you want to play with them, coax them along. Sometimes, you want to slap. Make it sting.

But foremost, don't fudge, don't dodge, and don't belabor a point.

* Have fun.

Being an editorial writer, as my wife often must tactfully explain to others, means being paid to have an opinion.

Few people have that luxury.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ewing, Jim
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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