Contest Corner: How do I know what judges are looking for?

The Better Newspaper Contests are judged by members of other state press associations. Judging is a reciprocal arrangement; each year INA “trades” with another state press association. For the 2020 contests, judges will be members of the Virginia Press Association; in turn, INA members judged VPA’s contest entries.

Because those judging INA members’ contest entries are also newspaper reporters, videographers, designers, etc., it’s somewhat easy to “put yourself in their shoes” and get an idea of what they are looking for when selecting winning entries.

Janine Kock is publisher of the Westside Observer and Manilla Times. The Westside Observer has taken home several first place honors over the years. She encourages INA members to make the contests fun. “The judges are newspaper people just like you and me, so don’t be intimated that you’re being judged.”

“When I judge entries from another state’s contests, I sit back and think, ‘What type of effect does this have on me as a reader?’ When selecting our contest entries each year, I keep that in mind and try to select pieces that will pop out at judges and that will elicit emotion.”

Kock reminds other members to pay close attention to the Call for Entries. “When I judge, I first closely read over the rules and guidelines. If some entries don’t meet the criteria, they are automatically eliminated. When entering, make sure you are following the rules as stated in the Call for Entries. If you’re not, that is one quick way for judges to put your entries aside and not consider them. Also, make sure the entry you’re submitting fits well into the category you’re entering. Is it really breaking news, is it really a feature story?”

Other tips Kock recommends include focusing on local content and submitting a wide variety of entries and examples. “Enter things that demonstrate your connection to your community and that show you’re serving your community.” 

In the end, it all comes down to each judge’s opinions and preferences. As Kock points out, “Remember, it is a very subjective process. Even if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean your work wasn’t good, so don’t shy away from entering something just because it’s not perfect. The whole idea of the contests is to make your newspaper better. I encourage all papers of all sizes to get involved. The contests are a good learning experience. If you have a good feeling about a story, enter it. It’s not rocket science and the judges are just like you and me.”

“I encourage everyone to serve as a judge. It’s a great way to get ideas, plus it helps you see both sides of the process,” Kock said.

Akron Hometowner publisher Dodie Hook, who has led her newspaper to numerous General Excellence awards in the past decade, agrees that serving as a judge provides an excellent way to improve your newspaper. “You get wonderful ideas from judging other papers! I’ve even “borrowed” a few ideas from newspapers I’ve judged! It works for anything – advertising, editorial, etc., and even works on ideas for photos.”