Take This Prize and Shove It

By Phillip Blanchard

Ten seconds. Count it: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ten seconds was roughly how long it lasted. Nobody had a stopwatch, nothing can be proven definitively, but that's the consensus. ... Ten seconds is barely a flicker. It's a long, deep breath. It's no time at all. It's an eternity.

So began a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune last year. You may be familiar with them because they won a Pulitzer Prize this spring.

We know that such writing is dreadful. We could spend all afternoon identifying the many things wrong with that paragraph.

We don’t know how the copy desk reacted when confronted with it, but it’s reasonable to assume there was a wince, followed by a mental rewriting, then the sinking feeling you get when you know something is awful and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But it’s not every day we get a bundle of stories intended for the Pulitzer entry. Most of the stuff we handle will be forgotten in a few days. It’s a sad fact of life that we can fix stories not intended to win prizes.

It is a myth that newspaper writing was better long ago; take a stroll through the pre-Watergate archives if you don’t believe me. But it’s getting worse now,and we all know why: Contest judges like “writerly” efforts, but most judges really don’t know what good news writing is. The detrimental influence of contests, from the mighty Pulitzers to the most modest award from a farm bureau, cannot be overstated. I have heard writers and editors muse about winning Pulitzers before a word was written.

Many copy editors long for recognition, which helps explain the fairly recent proliferation of headline contests. There are copy editors who emulate their writing colleagues and pursue prizes. Their headlines show it. Most prize-winners are groaners; others might be worthy of praise if they did not commit the worst sin of headline writing by drawing attention from the stories they adorn.

An occasional contributor to the Testy Copy Editors Web site, whose name you would all recognize but who is a man who lives the modesty he preaches, wrote: "One of the great things about being a copy editor is freedom from vulgar desire for public recognition." He expressed a sentiment that is dwindling. The great Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in “Headlines and Deadlines,” which is the best copy-editing manual ever written but is sadly dated and fallen out of use, did it better: “The business of writing and editing news is a cooperative undertaking,demanding the best of many brains. There is no place for pride of authorship.”

Who believes that these days?