One thing I know about myself is that I don’t ever admit that a situation is really bad until it’s over.
The year before last was bad on the Monitor. We were spread awfully thin; adjusting to new management; struggling to make our systems work and dealing with a lot of crises. Gross printing errors happened; I was driving to South Seattle every Monday just to proofread the paper; and I didn’t have much time or energy, or heart, come to that, to write anything I thought was particularly good.
So when the 2011 Better Newspaper Contest rolled around, for the first time in my career, I didn’t enter a single thing. I knew my work wasn’t as good as it had been, and I didn’t want the proof.
What a difference a year makes.
Our management changed again, and brought with it new processes. No more trips to Georgetown.
Our graphic designer makes the pages really look great and we get a lot more color than we used to. I got some help writing; a few more people to help fill the paper.
But most of all, I got hope back. It seemed once again that I wasn’t just surviving, and the job was actually manageable.
So in April, when it was time to turn in entries to the annual contest, I found some things I thought had a shot and submitted them.
It seems I’ve got my groove back!
Friday was a gorgeous day to drive to Yakima, smoke aside, and I arrived to a room full of people I really like and respect at the annual WNPA (Washington Newspaper Publishers Association) convention.
There was Mike Dillon, who was a delight to work with under the previous management structure, who did all he could to help us navigate the challenges we ran into, it seemed on a weekly basis.
There were reporters and editors I’ve seen at a number of these conventions now, and there was Mae Waldron of the WNPA, efficiently organizing everything, as usual.
Cliff, who is our new management team head, was there, already tired from a full day of convention and ready to head home before the awards dinner, but he wished me luck and I wished him luck driving home in the smoky haze.
Then I ran into Gary Devon. The whole time I was a young person living in Oroville in Eastern Washington, he was first a reporter and then the editor of the Oroville Gazette, which later absorbed the Tonasket Tribune and is now the Gazette-Tribune.
I always liked Gary. In a politically divided community, he was really good at being fair and impartial. His coverage of his area is really comprehensive, just great small town stuff, heavily weighted to high school sports with great coverage of local issues and thoughtful editorials.
I picked his brain mercilessly for about four hours. He was very gracious as we sat together and watched an awards ceremony that sometimes seems longer than the Oscars.
When it came around to the writing category, I got rather quiet. The first two awards for which I’d submitted entries passed, and I hadn’t even placed. I was rather dismayed.
Then up came the category for best business story, and there was me, with a first place for the story I wrote on the biodigester and the cooperation between the tribes and the dairies.
I was relieved, but not satisfied. In the past I’ve placed in as many as nine categories in a night, and I’ve won the big ones, Newswriter of the Year or Feature Writer of the Year once each, and was a third runner up another year.
So one first place was nice, but I felt that if that was all I got, I was going to be pretty disappointed with my work.
Then came the category for best government reporting. Another first, for a story I wrote on Jeff Sax’s plans upon arriving in Monroe. Then came a second place in the competitive long feature category, for the story I wrote on the worm program at the prison.
The sports categories came up, and I grabbed another first for best sports personality profile for the story I wrote on a man who, after nearly dying of heart failure, started a worldwide triathlon team and completed an Ironman.
Got a second place in short feature for a story about a dog in an elementary school, and I was pretty pleased. Not bad for a transition year, I told myself, and felt I could go home at peace.
Then came the category for best general interest column. Usually the newspapers only compete against others their size, but for this category groups 1 and 2 were combined. I’d entered, but not with any real degree of hope; that’s a competitive category and there are writers entering who write columns and nothing else.
There was my name. First place.
I stared at the screen and felt like I’d been forgiven for the sins of not getting enough sleep, procrastinating on deadlines in favor of writing fiction half the day, and traveling around the world with my band once in a while, trying my best to keep it all together. There are many, many days when those things do feel like sins, but here was proof that I’d met my responsibilities to my community and my team.
The relief was profound.
After that, it was nice to unwind a bit, and enjoy the parade of absolutely stunning photographs that went up on the screen for the photography categories.
Then the night was over, but for the last few big awards.
The Newswriter of the Year award was announced, and I was the first runner up. I shook a few hands and basked in it.
And then they announced the General Excellence Awards. I’ve hoped for one for years; only the best in each group wins, and every paper in the state is considered. It wasn’t to be this year either.
But when they announced the winner in Gary’s group, the honor went to the Gazette-Tribune.
I’ve been following in Gary’s footsteps since I published my very first clip in his paper when I was 14 and he was just a cub.
He really earned that award, and I was enormously glad to see him get it. And I sure do plan to keep following in his footsteps.
With the new processes in our organization, with the amazing little team we have, and with the support the leaders have been giving this paper, I think we have a shot at it.