A reminder of what we can be

I spent my morning and afternoon dealing with the annual Wisconsin Newspaper Association convention in Madison. It was, of course, the only day it snowed in the past three weeks or so, which made for a hellish drive. I was meeting a group of newspaper kids there, who were apparently so concerned about my safety and my driving that they kept texting me every five minutes and demanding a response.

By the time I got there, I’d missed the keynote, which apparently was to say I saved an hour of sleep and prevented a brain aneurism. The guy noted that newspapers could be saved if they just acted more like Fox News.

Still, it was worth it. The kids got to meet folks from all around the state, rub elbows with some nice vendors and learn about various aspects of the business that go beyond our hinterland confines. They got a critique from one of the dudes associated with the state’s investigative journalism project and he was impressed with their work. They also picked up a couple awards, including one for being best overall in the state in the non-daily division.

(Side note: If you are at all interested in saving my soul, donate $7.50 to The Daily Cardinal Alumni Association, earmarking it for an entry into next year’s WNA Better Collegiate Newspaper Contest. The Badger Herald won everything, essentially by default, as the Cardinal is one of the only other dailies in the state. If I had to watch one more Hairball kid get an award simply for showing up, I might have regurgitated my lovely Lenten Friday veggie meal. Thanks.)

While picking through our lunch, a couple of the kids started talking about various things we’d done and the conversation wandered back to a national convention a few years back. It was the first one I’d done with this paper and for at least one kid, it was the first time she’d ever been on a plane or left the state.

They had a blast, got a good critique and really learned a ton. However, what they remember most is the Best of Show competition.

Prior to the convention, a few editors asked how people win the Best of Show at these things. I told them that they’d have to do an awesome job on a big issue. They’d have to pour in a ton of content, great visuals and really give people something amazing. They told me they wanted to give it a shot, so I broke the bank to add pages, pour color all over this thing and then produce a mega-issue. It took a ton of time, had a ton of problems and ended up being amazing, despite a few flaws. As Johnny Sain used to say, “No one wants to hear about the labor pains. They only want to see the baby.”

We entered the issue in the contest and found out that there were more than 300 entries overall, with a great many of them being in our sub-category. I also found out from the guy who was running the place that they would do the Top 10 in order to give people a fighting chance at some glory.

Eighth, I told myself. If we finish eighth, that would be amazing. It’s good enough to say we won something and yet not perfect, so we’ve got something to aim for next time. Eighth would work. Eighth would be awesome.

On the day of the award ceremony, the kids gathered for the event. One girl was so sick, she was bundled up in her winter wear, despite the sweltering temperatures in the ballroom. When I told her to go back to the room and get some rest, she refused: “I need to know if we won,” she rasped in between shudders and coughs.

I’m sure it was only about 20 minutes, but it seemed to take forever for them to get to our category. The awards were handed out from 10 to 1. When it hit eight and we weren’t announced, I was concerned. When I heard who did win eighth, I figured we were dead. Good paper, great adviser, long track record of winning stuff.

As they kept ticking off the winners and we kept not being announced, I started trying to figure out how to explain the outcome to the kids. Judging is random, your effort was good, the competition was tough… The statements I planned to use to soften the blow kept pouring into my brain.

After they announced the second-place paper, they looked at me with these terrified and yet hopeful eyes. It was like they wanted to believe it was their award and yet they knew it probably wasn’t.

I broke the tension as best I could.

“Well,” I told them, “this is going to go one of two ways for us…”

After more build up than is present in your average porn film, the MC announced the winner.

It was our paper.

The girls screamed and one of them just broke down sobbing. The sick kid was jumping up and down. They hugged each other and then poured on top of me with hugs. The editor, the only guy in the bunch, just sat there stunned. I told him to go get the award. He stayed put. I poked him. He wouldn’t move.

I finally said to him, “Get up there and get the goddamned thing before they think better of it and take it back!”

He ran up and grabbed the trophy. Everyone else got certificates. We got a golden cup. Oddly enough, I was thinking how great it would be to win a certificate because we could mount it on the wall. Where the hell would we put a cup?

We all ran out of the ballroom and started texting everyone back home. I’m sure we trended on Twitter for about three minutes.

We decided to get some lunch. The trophy came with us.

During lunch at a local Panera, the kids were arguing about whose suitcase would carry home the trophy. After a long debate, they gave it to one girl who had a hard plastic suitcase and usually dressed in sweat shirts. The clothing, they argued, would provide padding while the suitcase itself offered protection from the elements.

I built a shelf in the newsroom and the cup sits there, coming down for an occasional dusting and a fairly frequent “cuddle session” with one of the editors.

As the editors retold this story to the newer staffers today, they were still smiling. And then, the girl who got to carry the trophy home offered this:

“I think that will be the most memorable moment of my life, up until my wedding day.”

The girl who was sick on that trip responded, “Nah. It’ll be even better than my wedding.”

I can’t say that it will or won’t be better than their weddings, nor can I state that it was better than mine. (I think the Missus might kill me…) I don’t know if we’ll ever win something that will be better than that. Sure, best in state is great and I’m sure a best in the country would be amazing too.

However, this was the first one. It was that moment where they put themselves out there for the first time. They had no right to expect to win. The odds were so much against them.

They’d been told they attended a branch school, a weaker sister of a bigger campus. They were told they lacked the education, the experience, the talent of bigger papers throughout the country. They didn’t have the pedigree for this kind of thing.

Yet, they stood up and said, “This is who we are. This is what we do. Take it for what it’s worth.”

For that, they were rewarded with something that went far beyond a golden cup.

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