Shallow Doc

I’m filing this from Denver, where I’m taking part in a
journalism convention that isn’t as much fun as the one I did in Minnesota.
This time, I’m presenting research and talking about the future of journalism
with some truly brilliant people and some people who still wonder if this
Internet thing is going to catch on.

It’s not all bad as I get to catch up with friends I only
see once a year, drink a ton of beer with people who are relatively famous and
I even saw both Larry Hagman and George Karl in the airport.

Over the past decade of coming to these things, I’ve noticed
a gradual downward creeping of the quality of the event. That’s one of those
things that bothers me, as it seems to typify my field: newspapers. We cut
back, we cut back, we cut back and then we wonder why things aren’t as good and
people aren’t as interested.The programming, the events, the feel… They all just seem to be a cut below.

For example, the first convention I went to, one of the
co-panelists received a top paper awards. There was this really nice blue
metallic plaque that came with the honor. Pictures were taken, applause was
given. I decided right then and there I wanted to win those things.

So, I killed myself to write as many good papers as
possible. A year later, I got a notice: congratulations! You’ve won top paper.

I was like a little kid at Christmas. I couldn’t wait.

When the convention arrived, the person in charge announced
my name, I stepped forward and I got a certificate of merit. It looked like
something I could have printed off at home. I was told that this was a smaller
division and that plaques were not something they did.

OK. I got it. Must work harder.

Over the next six years, I submitted to at least a dozen
divisions, each time winning and each time coming home plaque-free. Each year,
it was a different excuse: We don’t have the budget, we decided against it this
year, we didn’t think people cared and on and on and on.

I became like Woody Harrelson in “Zombieland” on his search
for a Twinkie. Each year, a colleague would come home with a plaque and I’d
come home like Charlie Brown on Halloween with my rock in my sack.

The strangest thing was that people stopped giving plaques
and started giving out money. It was easier to cut a check than to etch a
plaque. So, for all the cries of poverty (cough… cough… newspaper business…
cough…) they were spending more money on less valuable shit.

This year, when they announced the paper acceptances, I didn’t
win anything. It was fine. I’d gotten used to just going, presenting, drinking
and leaving.

However, about
two weeks ago, I got an email from one of the divisions. The guy apologized and
told me that he forgot to inform me that I’d won a top faculty paper award. He
said there would be a ceremony for this and I should come in on Thursday to
this meeting.

I emailed him back, asking if this was a prank. My friends
had gotten to needle me a bit about how many of these things I tended to win
and how I had gotten obsessed about this plaque. I didn’t want to change my
flight or miss other stuff if this was just one of my buddies giving me a hard

No joke, he said. Plaque, yes. Please make it to this

I cancelled a bunch of stuff, skipped a free-beer reception
and headed over there.

A buddy, who also won a top paper award, and I sat through
an hour of stuff before they gave out the awards.

They called his name first. They handed him a certificate
and a check.


You can make the argument that this makes me a shallow
asshole. No complaint there. However, what people tend to not understand at
these things is that you can get money anywhere. The hardware is the rarity. In
no way is LeBron James a worse player than Steve Kerr. However, Kerr has
something like 93 championship rings and LeBron is in Miami trying to win one. The
hardware matters.

In this meeting we had to sit through, the guy was
explaining how the division was losing a ton of money. He then went and handed
out checks for $100 to all of these winners. The logic is both mindboggling and

Sure, cash is nice, but I’ll spend it on something that
wouldn’t have as much meaning as the award. Instead, use that money to give
people something that they will want to win again or that will inspire others
to work toward winning. If you think I’m the only plaque-monkey, think again.
The guys I drank with last night each won one. If the lanyard had held the
weight, they’d have worn the plaques around the convention.

So, I’ll be offering to send back my C-note in exchange for
a piece of tag-board with a faux metallic sheen on it. Sounds shallow, sounds
stupid, but it’s one of those things that demonstrates value.

In my case, it’s a pretty simple trade:

Save the cash. Give me the plaque. We’ll call it good.

6 thoughts on “Shallow Doc

  1. Ain’t silly or shallow at all. It’s like working for a boss who never praises your work — after a while of no recognition, you just quit giving a fuck. Not giving plaques or decent awards is basically saying “We have to give these out, ’cause we gave ’em out last year, so here, we’re giving you the same piece of paper we give people for their one-year anniversary at the paper. Here, have some goddamn lemon chicken.”

  2. I like winning awards. I’ve won quite a few of them – plaques, trophies, certificates, little crystal paperweight thingies, you name it. But I never kept the things. Maybe it’s because I moved every year. Maybe it’s my Buddhist streak. I don’t know.
    Anyway, this might help. Years ago I knew an older writer who told me that winning awards is like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit. It feels nice and warm and nobody notices.
    So, take the award as a well-earned attaboy from your peers, which is the real point, and forget about the plaque. In the end, it’ll just be one more dusty piece of shit your heirs will have to sort through and throw away.

  3. It used to be that giving cash as a gift was considered extremely tacky, uncaring, and rude.
    Now cash / gift card is the gift of choice.

  4. OTOH, if you compare all the hard work you put into those papers and articles, does $50 even begin to adequately compensate you?
    But a plaque is unique and something you can’t get from an ATM.
    Admittedly, you could make your own plaque, but that would be kind of worthless in meaning.

  5. I totally hear you on this one.
    Digby once said that I deserved a metal for my work. I would have LOVED that. But nobody gives metals for what I do. The get sued.

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