No eyes on the prize

M.E. Sprengelmeyer. Remember him? I’ve written about him quite a bit. Most famously, according to M.E., on my blog last year when I recounted how the Sky News Sunday Agenda program wound up with him as a guest political commentator during the 2008 US elections when the well-known Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne, declined our invitation (last year’s post: http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-w).

As Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, M.E. wrote some wonderful analytical pieces about the 2008 US presidential election campaign, including a historical multi-media series called Unconventional Wisdom (http://bit.ly/mz6gQb). In the series, he picked and interviewed the most compelling person from each of the ten previous Democratic National Conventions, who could offer lessons for Barack Obama and Denver, the site of the 2008 party gathering. “Wonderful,” I emailed M.E., “you should put it in for a Pulitzer Prize.” He replied quickly: “I don’t believe in awards for journalists.”

M.E. has gone on to bigger (some might say smaller) and better things, after management axed the Rocky Mountain News, fulfilling a life-long dream to buy his own newspaper, the Guadalupe County Communicator, in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. He’s also the editor, chief reporter and photographer, columnist, distributor and publicity agent for the community paper – which is destined to win as many awards as the Rocky Mountain News. (Sorry, M.E., but you’re just going to have to live with the description.)  But I agree with M.E. on his dislike for awards for journalists.

Okay, you say, why then do I spruik the upcoming inaugural Kennedy Awards and judge them (http://kennedyawards.com.au/), as well as act as an occasional judge for the Walkley Awards, annually for the Channel Nine Camera Awards, and just about any journalistic prize going. That’s easy to answer – I judge them because after 40 years as a journalist, I believe it’s time for me to give something back to the profession. And the reason I stopped submitting entries for journo awards is that I found them to be a bit too political. I felt some of my entries were rejected because the other entrants worked for networks that were always winning awards – and I worked for a commercial station. I was warned about this, but I said surely not. I was wrong. Eventually, I decided that I should produce or report or write stories that needed to be told – and if I was prevailed upon to submit an award, I’d think about it long and hard. The last entry I put in for a journo’s award (a UN Media Peace Prize) was a 1997 story about Australian businessman Joe Gutnick and his bid to rebuild the Jewish enclave in the volatile West Bank town of Hebron to double the number of settlers. I didn’t think we’d win, but I submitted it because the reporter, Janine Perrett, had done a magnificent job on the road, interviewing Shimon Peres, the former Israeli Prime Minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, the then (and future) Prime Minister; and Jibril Rajoub, PLO Security Chief, as well as local Jews and Palestinians. Janine wanted me to enter it for the Sunday Program team, so I did, as the producer. But we didn’t win. This time I was right. (And yes, I have to admit there is a distinct possibility that we didn’t win the award because the story wasn’t the best entry. That goes for every award entry I submitted – although I did win a couple of UN Media Peace Prize citations in the early 80s for stories on human rights and Amnesty International.)

AWARDS FOR JOURNALISTS WHO NEVER RECEIVE AWARDS

So why am I a judge and a supporter of the Kennedy Awards? That’s also easy to answer. Some of these prizes are for journalists who would normally never receive awards. There’s the Cliff Neville Award for Best Team Player, named after a friend and producer, who was one of the backroom journos for the Nine Network’s Sixty Minutes. He was on the phone when a story went wrong, or one of the staff on the road got sick or arrested; he fixed up visas, came up with ideas and he never looked for kudos or awards. It was all about getting the job done and making Sixty Minutes the best current affairs show on television. It was often said of Cliff that he was the glue that held Sixty Minutes together – in other words, the best team player.

Another prize for unsung heroes like Cliff is the Les Kennedy Award for Mentoring. The overall Awards are named for Les, a legendary crime reporter for Fairfax and News Ltd, who developed contacts by going out to meet them and drink with them and break stories, but this particular prize is named for his mentoring skills – he helped every journalist he knew, and even some of us Old Farts. We remembered him as a cadet and reporter who listened to us in the News Ltd building in Holt St and the Evening Star down the road, and now we were listening to him. He was a great crime reporter, but his mentoring is a legacy we should all remember!

The other reason I am backing the Kennedy Awards is the quality of the judging, from former News Ltd CEO John Hartigan to Allan Hogan, founding executive producer of the Sunday Program, former supervising producer of Sixty Minutes, and ABC foreign correspondent; and senior broadcast journalist, Ellen Fanning, who’s also hosting the gala ceremony on August 10. All the judges will read every word, watch every frame, click on every online link, listen to every radio grab and look at every illustration with objectivity. No politicking here. Every entry will be judged on its merit. It’s a shame the Kennedy Awards weren’t launched earlier in my career – I might have entered (and lost!).

And, of course, in this year of massive job losses in the industry, it will be nice to celebrate journalism, and give us a chance to explore ways to use new technology to create more openings in the media. There might even be jobs for Old Farts, who can shoot, edit, write their own stories and publish them online, though we’ll probably need a bit of mentoring from young journalists and editors!

PS My apologies for using the personal pronoun “I” so much in this post. It’s just that it had to be personal to explain why I (there I go again!) stopped submitting entries!

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