Time for an NNA upgrade

For the record, this is not what the NNA looks like. It’s a framed plaque.

Gird yourself, I’m about to attack a Canadian journalism institution: The National Newspaper Awards.

It has taken me a couple of weeks to write this post. No, scratch that. This has been years in the making.

I need to begin by stating that I recognize the importance of the NNAs – some have dubbed them “Canada’s Pulitzer Prize” (this kind of identifying through comparison with our American neighbours makes me cringe.)

Three of my colleagues were recognized for their journalistic excellence at this year’s NNAs, an achievement that has made everyone in the newsroom proud.

But journalistic excellence doesn’t occur solely in print form.

This is 2013, my dear friends at the National Newspaper Awards, it’s time to overhaul your image and your awards mandate. Your slogan is ‘Honouring the best in Canadian Journalism since 1949’ and you’re just not doing that anymore.

Many senior media executives were in Ottawa in early May for the Newspapers Canada ‘Ink and Beyond’ conference and the NNAs.  Some lovingly called it “Newspapers week.”

Again, I cringe.

It is dinosaur thinking to consider yourself a newspaper. You are a news organization, committing fantastic acts of journalism online, on tablets, on smartphones and social media. (I know, I’ve missed some). The inky print product is but one platform.

The NNAs, sadly, don’t recognize this. The awards page boasts the 66 judges who evaluate a news organization’s submission based on the piece’s Idea, Reporting, Writing, and Overall Impression.

It also states:

The qualities of good writing, good leads, color, completeness, quotes, anecdotes are given needs for all entries. To quantify judging, judges can assign points for each category.

In setting out its judging criteria, the NNA has established a basis for awarding fantatstic acts of longform journalism, in narrative form.

I love a good long read as much as the next guy, but to have only ONE category out of 22 for multimedia projects is ridiculous.

To add insult, newsrooms are only allowed to enter TWO submissions for the lone multimedia award.

If the NNAs want to remain relevant in a changing mediascape, this has to change.

The colleagues I previously mentioned won their awards for political reporting and business reporting. In our submissions, my newsroom entered pages and clippings for pieces that ran in our paper, as per NNA instructions. Imagine if those categories were truly open, and online projects could be included as entries in all categories.

The NNAs need to reward newsrooms who are trying new story forms, who are moving beyond traditional narrative and telling stories in new and creative ways.

They used to be the measure of a quality newsroom. While I still think winning an NNA is a chest-beating accomplishment, I now believe they are the measure of quality print storytelling. And that’s a shame.

A single category for multimedia projects merely annexes the efforts of those who are truly the vanguard of Canadian media.


Update: Postmedia’s Tina Spencer points out that an investigative project by The Huffington Post Canada and University of King’s College was among the nominations in this year’s Investigations Category at the NNAs. This is definitely a step in the right direction for the NNAs.

2 thoughts on “Time for an NNA upgrade

  1. Hey Mel,

    I don’t speak for the NNAs, however I do sit on the board of governors. I would point out one element in the rules of entry that I think too many newsrooms may have overlooked.

    15- NEW! All categories now permit “all journalistic tools”; ie., text, video, audio, and social media. No photos. Use the fields provided in the online entry form to input the elements. Each entry in the text categories must contain one or more text elements.

    Having stickhandled the CAJ Awards for a few years now, an association I do speak for, we’ve been subject to similar feedback. I’d say the NNAs are a step or two ahead of us right now on this question– particularly moving categories to recognize multi-platform work. That’s my preference– being “platform agnostic” as opposed to simply creating multimedia categories.

    Overall, I’d be as critical of entrants and their newsrooms as I would of any awards programs. Until most of those who want to win awards are truly multi-platform in their day-to-day work, the entries and the programs will continue to be biased towards one way of committing acts of journalism. Having been behind the scenes this year for a move to something as simple as online submission, I can say a fair number of large newsrooms still asked whether they could just mail in hard copies or discs. Outside of individuals applying on their own, I was surprised to learn that many newsrooms that might submit en masse still compiled entries in very traditional ways.


    1. Great comment Hugo, thanks for this. I think you are right, change will happen more quickly when the entrants/news orgs demand it. How soon will we see that when executives are still celebrating ‘Newspaper Week?’

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