photo of a contest judge with two guns to his head

Has anyone judged more journalism contests in this century than I have?

Since 2000, I’ve chosen winners in nearly 300 categories for two dozen journalism contests for both pros and students.

So let me tell you how judging really works. These brutal truths apply to almost every contest not called the Pulitzer Prize. (Which would never let me judge, anyway. At least, I hope not.)

Let’s begin by revealing who your judges are – so you can judge them. Here’s what journalism contests don’t want you to know…


In 2018, I judged…

…and I didn’t request any of them.

The contest directors either asked me personally or issued desperate pleas on various listservs, Facebook pages, and personal emails. Why? Because judging is a chore and no one wants to do it.

Very few contests pay their judges. This year, only one offered me cash: $2 per entry. I judged 35 entries, earning $70 – and six months later, I’m still waiting on the check.

But it’s not just the money. Each contest has its own ridiculous logistics.

Big contests rent software from firms like BetterBNC, OmniContest, and OpenWater, which allows judges to log in, peruse the entries in their categories, and rank the winners. But each has its own learning curve and counter-intuitive interface, which means judging different contests can be a pain in the ass.

Small contests can’t afford such software, which can cost $2,000 a year. So they send their judges huge Google spreadsheets, multiple PDFs, and long email threads. One contest I judged this year shipped me a giant clasp envelope full of daily print newspapers and monthly magazines. That was a fun Saturday afternoon.

No wonder many first-time judges don’t come back for seconds.

WHAT TO KNOW: Your judge is probably new and confused, or old and angry.


Because I don’t have children or Netflix, many contest coordinators know they can rely on me – especially when other judges blow deadline and won’t return desperate emails, text messages, and phone calls. Happens every year. A few months ago, I got this email from a contest coordinator, which is typical…

I know you’re probably in judging hell right now, but one of the judges backed out (after deadline, no less) so I’m scrambling to find a replacement. So far I’ve struck out. I hate to ask, but would you be able to pick up his slack and judge one more category?

This year, six of the 32 categories I judged weren’t originally mine. They were reassigned from assholes who made commitments and then dropped off the grid.

And that’s how a minor-league journalist like me has such a massive influence on journalism contests around the country. I never say No.

WHAT TO KNOW: Your entry is probably being judged by a journalist less talented than you are.


Of the 12 contests I’ve judged this year, only three insisted I recruit other judges.

Contests rarely demand more than one judge per category. The few that do have never assigned me a partner. They’ve asked me to do it. Only two this year (SPJ’s SDX Awards and NYIT’s Iron Reporter) asked me for the names of my fellow judges.

For harried contest directors – often volunteers or underpaid contractors – the policy seems to be, “Don’t tell, don’t ask.” That extends to the judging criteria.

This year, most of the contest gave me no guidelines at all. SPJ’s college and pro contests offer the most details. F’rinstance, here are the rules for judging photojournalism…

In evaluating the entries, the judges should consider: 

  • Technical: Composition, lighting, clarity and quality of reproduction. 
  • Newsworthiness: Does the photo itself tell the story? Is there action? Does the photo elicit an emotional response? 
  • Enterprise: Is there evidence of unusual initiative, ingenuity or persistence?  Any obstacles that had to be overcome?

…which is helpful but still leaves a lot of room for personal bias.

WHAT TO KNOW: One person is deciding whether you win or lose, and they operate under few or no rules. So it’s totally up to the whims of one lonely and bitter journalist.


Since 2011, I’ve also been a contest director. The Green Eyeshades is the oldest regional journalism contest in the nation, dating back to 1950. I run it, but I’m not a judge.

What’s the difference? Judges only judge. Directors do everything but judge. They recruit judges, set the entry and judging deadlines, collect entry fees, run the website, and mail certificates to winners.

Here’s why this matters to you: It busts some myths. Ever hear this?

Don’t enter too many categories – because the judges will see that you’re just throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks.

Or this?

Don’t enter at the last minute – because the judges will see that you’re not good on deadline.

But the judges only know what the contest director tells them. And contest directors don’t tell judges much: Here’s your category, your deadline, and maybe some vague guidelines.

In fact, judges know almost nothing about the contests they’re choosing winners for. We don’t see the entry form, and we have no reason to read the entry rules. (Unless the contest director insists, which is rare. That happened zero times for me this year.)

WHAT TO KNOW: You know more about the contest you entered than the judges do.


Judges will punish you for mistakes you didn’t make…

  • You won’t win a design award if the headline sucks.
  • You won’t win a writing award if the layout sucks.
  • You won’t win a photo award if the cutline sucks.
  • You won’t win anything if there are spelling mistakes.

Maybe that’s not fair. It’s definitely not in the rules. But judges are (mostly) human. They can’t help it.

I refuse to help it. I care more about the reader/viewer than the reporter/designer/photographer. A powerful story that looks like crap means no one will read it. And then what’s the point of our noble craft?

While I do this intentionally, I’ve spoken to judges who admit (after I’ve mentioned it) they unconsciously do the same thing. It usually happens like this…

  • You log onto the judging website.
  • You’re shocked to see a list of 40 or more entries.
  • You click through them all, trying to set a baseline for what makes a winner.
  • With such a crushing number of entries, you skip the ones that look like crap, even if design isn’t part of the criteria. You never actually read some entries. 
  • If you catch a misspelling anywhere on the entry, you stop reading right away.

That sounds harsh and even unethical. It’s not. Judging a contest is akin to hiring an employee – something else I’ve done for years.

When you have dozens of job applicants, you want to winnow the field to give yourself more time to seriously consider fewer people. So you toss resumes that have a minor misspelling, are printed on pink paper, or call you “Sir/Madam.”

Hiring and judging are both struggles of time vs. talent. Remember that if you want to win an award. Or land a job.

WHAT TO KNOW: Design matters in writing entries. Writing matters in design entries. And copyediting matters in all entries.


The similarities between entering a contest and applying for a job don’t stop there.

Ask any hiring editor: Half of all applicants don’t even meet the minimum requirements you listed in your job description. Yet they apply anyway, figuring, “What the hell, maybe I’ll get lucky.”

That happens with contest entries, too. I easily ignore half of them in almost every category. When I judge features, a handful of entries are routinely news stories. They’re even labeled NEWS at the top of the page. They’re not even remotely feature stories.

Same thing in categories marked “breaking news.” I’ve seen more than a few entries that are profiles. One time, there was a theater review. (It was opening night, so I suppose that’s breaking…)

After I discard half the entries – sometimes only barely glancing at them – I peruse the other half. Of those, it’s easy to isolate a half-dozen impressive ones. Then the hard work begins.

Just like job interviews, by the time you hack your way down to a handful of entries you like, the differences between them are wafer thin. You could choose any one of them and feel good about the decision. Sometimes, when it’s really close, you mentally flip a coin in your head. And that’s how first place is chosen.

When I talk to other judges, this is pretty much their system, too.

WHAT TO KNOW: Judges don’t pick the winners. They weed out the losers. What’s left is a crapshoot.


Among the many contests I’ve judged, most demand I select first, second, and third places – even if all the entries suck. The reason is greedy: These contests are revenue streams for the journalism groups that host them. More winners this year means more entries next year.

Only a few contests want comments on the first-place winners, and fewer still want comments on all the winners. When I’ve offered to write comments – because I feel it’s the right thing to do – most harried contest directors tell me not to bother. It’s too much trouble to distribute them to the applicants.

Only a few contests want just a first-place winner, and if no entry is deserving, they encourage you to say so. They also demand thoughtful comments. SPJ’s SDX Awards is one of these. It’s also the most prestigious contest I regularly judge, with entries from The New Yorker, NPR, Washington Post, and the national cable news stations.

The SDX Awards are sometimes called the Junior Pulitzers, because they come closest to operating like the Pulitzers themselves. And how exactly do the Pulitzers operate? Well, for starters, they don’t beg losers like me to choose their winners.

They also don’t explain their judging process. I had to dig to find this explanation: The Pulitzers appoint “nominating juries” for each category that “pick three finalists in each of their respective categories. The winners are selected by the Pulitzer board.”

That’s surprisingly similar to the Online Journalism Awards, run by the Online Journalists Association – by far the fastest-growing and hippest media group these days.

For the past couple years, I’ve been a “screener judge.” This year, I reviewed 12 categories and ranked entries to help the “final round judges” choose the winners. Here’s how it works…

Score the entry on a 3-point scale.

1 – Indicates that the entry is not of sufficient quality to receive further consideration. Entries at this level may simply not reflect high-caliber journalistic work, and/or exhibit a host of errors or inadequacies.

2 – Indicates that the entry is very good and may qualify for further consideration. Entries at this level probably excel in one or more respects, but potentially have some shortcomings as well.

3 – Indicates that the entry is superb and of sufficiently high quality to receive further consideration. Entries at this level demonstrate mastery of digital tools, platforms, and storytelling.

Not surprisingly, some screener judges bailed. So I got this email from ONA…

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your help with reviewing the first round of entries for the Online Journalism Awards. We wouldn’t be able to do it without you all. We had 1138 submissions entered and 132 active screeners.

Unfortunately, about 1/3 of the screeners did not review their assignments so if you enjoyed reviewing entries and have some time between now and end of day Thursday to do some additional judging, will you please send me a note with how many assignments you would like to review.

…so I said, “Of course” and screened another category. I wonder if the same thing happens with those Pulitzer nominating juries. Maybe it’s the same everywhere.

This is why I don’t enter journalism contests myself. It’s kind of like the slaughterhouse worker who becomes a vegetarian – I know how the sausages are made. Now you do, too.