By Gary Potosky

Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Editor
APSE First Vice President
Contest Chair

MAY 3, 2021 — The 2020 APSE writing, video, photo, digital and sections contest succeeded on so many levels, it’s hard to remember the mistakes, missteps and misguided expectations. But I’ll try to cover all that here anyway.

First and very much foremost, thank you to the judges, nearly 150 of you, who tackled the all-remote task with aplomb at every turn. Judging in this all-important sports journalism event is an all-volunteer effort, but it was treated by judges as it always has been: with total professionalism and commitment to excellence.

Find the results to the sections contest here.

The APSE contest committee — Lisa Wilson, Jorge Rojas, Dan Spears, Nicole Saavedra, Maria McIlwain, Nick Talbot, Naila-Jean Meyers, John Bednarowski, and Jim Pignatiello — did real work last spring and summer to help me deliver meaningful and needed change to this year’s contest, and their work is immensely appreciated.

Some facts: 

  • 71 newspapers entered the first-time-ever all-PDF print sections contest
  • 142 newsrooms participated in the writing, video and photo contest
  • 45 newsrooms entered the newly formatted digital contest (more on this later)

An impediment to an all-remote contest is that unlike the in-person event we all enjoy in Florida in non-pandemic years (287 days until Orlando 2021, but who’s counting?), this year’s contest had to be judged in off hours. Editors and writers who have attended the in-person winter conferences to judge have put those days aside for this task, work on strict deadlines to complete their mission and deliver results, and leave for home having done the work. This year, judges didn’t have time away from the office for this — they tackled these tasks during off hours, weekends, and nights. They had more days to judge, but in essence less actual time to do it. 

Many difficult issues were raised, and not all the resolutions were perfect. As the mission of sports departments and how we report the news changes, and how companies that own newspapers coordinate across departments and newsrooms, new contest conflicts have arisen this year and in recent years that will require future contest committees to tackle. Maybe those answers will be clear, I wish them all wisdom to move ahead on those, and other issues that arise.

My aim in my turn in the contest circle was simple:

  • The contest should include the best sports journalism in America
  • The contest should best reflect what we as editors and writers strive to accomplish every day
  • The contest should show grace and patience when missing information, bad links, and honest mistakes are submitted

I think we did OK with these, but the rules of the contest will continue to be amended, rewritten, rethought, and made to better represent our best work in the years to come.

And bad mistakes, we made a few

There was vague language that required subjective judgment rather than a strict reading of the rules. Every issue was met with the objective of getting stories into the contest if at all possible. A few didn’t make the cut, but not for lack of trying.

But the most frustrating mistake, which caused the contest to last weeks longer than expected, was made by officers who put together the judging docs. Entries were culled from docs submitted by editors, and moved onto judging docs. Those docs were given to 3 (in a few cases 4) judges to choose a Top 10 (or fewer in some categories) and then rank those 10. A second set of judges was tasked with ranking those stories as well, bringing the total ranking group to 6 for each category. 

However, some entries of The State in Category C did not make it to the judging docs even though they were properly submitted and on time. When we were alerted to this error, the officers conducted a complete audit of the contest to see if any other entries were improperly excluded. We found one entry from the Lawrence World-Herald and one from the Press Democrat were also excluded. 

The result was, the officers asked the original judging groups to determine whether the omitted entries belonged in the rankings, and in cases where they were, to re-rank those categories to include those new entries. And then we tasked the original re-rank judging groups to re-rank. Again. Hence, you will see some Top 11s and Top 12s in the final results.

This was a lot to ask, and when some judges respectfully declined to re-judge, a group of writers and editors volunteered to pick up those judging tasks in order to finish the contest so that every category was ranked by at least 6 judges. Thank you to those judges who put up their hand to help.

Digital transformation

The digital/website contest was overhauled this year, emphasizing the best content chosen by editors instead of the drive-by approach of previous years — 5 stories a la beat writing, and a live overview of the site as a smaller piece of the judging. (In previous years, it was the entire digital judging procedure). The result was more work for editors and lower participation, but a much more accurate portrayal of the work. I believe the new digital contest will grow in the years to come as more editors get used to this approach.

One of the great things about the contest, as all judges know, is learning from what others have done well and applying it to our own planning and publishing. The digital train has left the station going full speed, so these tremendous examples in digital excellence offer great inspiration.

Finally

While participation in the contest declined in a pandemic year, there is reason for optimism. APSE has a new newsletter, edited and published by Jake Adams and Lindsey Smith, to help spread the word on what our great organization can offer current and potential members, and to encourage everyone to enter their best work in our annual contest.

There’s also an APSE Slack platform. If you haven’t signed up or in, reach out to the officers for guidance, it’s easy. And of course, we have a growing social media presence on Twitter and Facebook.

Enjoy the summer, and hope to see you in Las Vegas in August.

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