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Online News Sites Score More With Flash Than With Substance

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Study by journalism student finds award-winning Web sites grab attention with bells and whistles --and not writing. Plus, a rundown of upcoming competitions.

The Internet has had a sordid history of awards and pseudo-awards given for Web sites. I know all about it, because I wrote for one of the most sordid of them all, Point's Top 5% of the Web (later taken over by Lycos). After a while, it seemed like 95 percent of Web sites were in the top 5 percent. There's also been everything from Cool Site of the Day to the vaunted Webbys.

Add that history to the orgy of journalism awards, from local press clubs to the Pulitzers, and you can safely assume that online journalism is a, uh, rewarding field. No doubt. You've got the Online Journalism Awards, the EPpys, the Edgies, the SND.ies, and the Batten Awards for Innovation. Folks in Europe have the NetMedia European Online Journalism awards. I've included a handy-dandy rundown below to compare and contrast -- and so you can enter your site or self.

The USC Annenberg School for Communication -- which publishes Online Journalism Review -- recently got into the act and is now a partner in the Online Journalism Awards, a position previously held by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The competition could be tight: A recent study of award-winning sites posits they won because of eye-catching "bells and whistles" instead of great writing. The conundrum is that many top media sites use repurposed material from adjunct newspaper, television or radio content. So the best work might be jazzier versions of offline stories, with added multimedia pizazz.

The modest study is the work of Erin Robinson, actually her honors thesis for the University of Iowa, where she just completed her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism/Mass Communications. A lot of her work is subjective analysis of last year's winners of the Online Journalism Awards, EPpys and Edgies. Her basic conclusion is a bit stark: Almost all sites include interactivity, video, audio, search etc., but they don't focus on writing for the medium.

"Something that really seemed to be lacking on the news sites I researched was good online writing practices," Robinson wrote. "Many of the articles were written in a traditional print style, but few took into consideration the quick readers on the Web... because people come to the Web for information, it must be a quick, pleasant and useful task."

The role of interactivity

None of the Big Three awards folks were familiar with Robinson's report, but they quickly responded to her findings.

"My belief is that the 'whiz-bang' elements of a site play some role in a judge's decision, especially in categories that are geared toward recognizing new technology," said Rob Runett, manager of electronic media analysis for the Newspaper Association of America (which runs the Digital Edge awards or "Edgies"). "The categories that are focused purely on editorial skills should be judged as such. Photojournalism plays a major role in certain winning sites, and that feels perfectly valid to me."

The Edgies have the disadvantage of being focused solely on newspaper sites, meaning that offline adjuncts get more resources for deeper work. The EPpys, owned by Editor & Publisher, have a history of focusing on print-related online sites (they were formerly known as the Interactive Newspaper Awards). The EPpys recently broadened to cover broadcast-related sites, and look beyond journalism at advertising and even classifieds. Len Muscarella is president of Interactive Media Associates, which administers the awards for E&P. He had an interesting take on the research report.

"I tend to agree that Web journalism is still somewhat derivative -- meaning that the stories are often written for the newspaper first (and primarily) and then moved to the Internet," he told me via e-mail. "But how they are moved to the Internet is crucial. If the news story is just spooled over to the Web site via a software procedure, it makes for some pretty boring Web feature. The award winners usually aren't doing that. They are using the multimedia and interactive aspects of the Web to make them unique. So, just because the words are the same doesn't mean the reader's experience, or the impact of the story, is the same as the newspaper."

Dianne Lynch, executive director of the Online News Association who administers the Online Journalism Awards, had little to say about Robinson's research, or about competing awards. The OJAs are probably the most focused on journalism. "[The OJAs] reward excellent online journalism," she e-mailed me. "That means the journalism has to reflect all of the traditional standards of excellence: great writing, great reporting, strong ethics. The OJAs simultaneously reward journalism that understands and exploits the unique qualities and power of the online medium. Content and presentation are inextricably intertwined; both are essential. [The judges] are experienced and veteran journalists who aren't easily swayed by 'bells and whistles.'"

Europe and beyond

Perhaps the most complex awards process takes place in Europe, where Milverton Wallace has been running the European Online Journalism (EOJ) awards since 1999 (back when they were UK-focused). This year, Wallace had 118 judges in 20 countries, with a record 1,014 entries in a plethora of languages. The only limiting factor was having enough judges in one area. "The stronger the panel in one area, the stronger the entries," Wallace told me. "We only had four or five Russian judges, so the Russian entries weren't that strong this year." He'd like to beef up judging in Eastern Europe and might even do a road show to educate some countries about online journalism.

One key difference with the EOJ awards is that they recognize journalists only, and not Web sites, editors or media companies. "Our awards are for individuals and not for institutions," Wallace said. "We reward stories and not sites." Despite the focus on the little guy -- a correspondent for Swiss Radio International won the Internet Journalist of the Year award -- BBC employees still walked off with eight of the 21 prizes this year. Wallace said he can't handicap the Beeb just because they put the most resources online in Europe.

Unlike the more staid journalism awards, the online awards are more open to changing categories and criteria year-to-year. This year, the EOJ awards looked at Weblogs and mobile connectivity, the EPpys looked at radio- and TV-related sites, and the Edgies added a "Best Sports Site" while ditching an award for e-mail products.

However, the established media awards are starting to give token notice to online work. The National Press Club gives an online journalism award and an online award for distinguished contribution, and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists even has a "Category F" for online-only columns. Plus, the Pulitzer folks have opened the door for online presentations for its Public Service award.

"[The Pulitzer Board] took a significant step in recognition of the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism," wrote Seymour Topping, a former managing editor of The New York Times, in a history of the Pulitzers for its Web site. "Beginning with the 1999 competition, the board sanctioned the submission by newspapers of online presentations as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. The board left open the distinct possibility of further inclusions in the Pulitzer process of online journalism as the electronic medium developed."

With rapidly evolving technology, the medium could one day stop being an award criteria at all. Converged media outlets will be able to mix and match video, audio, text, messaging and more. So we can look forward to a time when online journalism awards are not about who's using the flashiest design or the coolest technology to attract readers to repurposed material. Maybe a day will come when we can reward online journalists for doing what journalists do best: breaking news stories, telling great stories and making a difference.

Major Awards for Online Journalism

Online Journalism Awards

Most focused on journalism, including independent sites, creative use of the medium and commentary
Cost to enter: $80 - $100
Entry details: Due in July 31;
Next awards: Chicago, Nov. 14-15

EPpy Awards

Wide array of categories, including broadcast, community, Net shopping and college newspaper
Cost to enter: TBA
Entry details: Entry period will open in December
Next awards: May 2004

Digital Edge Awards (Edgies)

Limited to NAA member newspaper sites
Cost to enter: TBA
Entry details: TBA
Next awards: Jan. 18-21, 2004, in San Diego

NetMedia European Online Journalism awards

Open to online journalists based in Europe, in multiple languages.
Cost to enter: Free
Entry details: Competition opens March 1, 2004
Next awards: July 1, 2004, in Amsterdam

Institute for Interactive Journalism's Batten Awards

Open to news-producing organizations and individuals working at these organizations; looks at innovative interactivity.
Cost to enter: $25
Entry details: Deadline is June 11, 2004
Next awards: Announced in summer 2004; 2003 finalists have been announced, with '03 winners unveiled on Sept. 15 in Washington, DC.


SND.ies: Best of New Media Design

Open to organizations and individuals; winners named each month, leading to 12 finalists for annual prize
Cost to enter: $10-$15
Entry details: Deadline is first of the month, every month

Are we missing any important awards? Please e-mail me at [email protected] and we'll update the list.

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Related Links
2003 Winners for National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest
Award-Winning Online News Sites ? What Constitutes an Award Winner?
Batten Awards
Batten Awards details
Batten Awards: registration
E&P: EPpy Winners Announced
EOJ awards rules
EPpy: registraion
EPpys
Edgies
Edgies: registration
Email Mark Glaser
European Online Journalism Awards for 2003
NAA's Digital Edge Awards
National Press Club Selects 2003 Awards Winners
NetMedia: registration
OJA rules
Online Journalism Awards
Online Journalism Awards
Online Journalism Awards: registration
Pulitzer.org: Joseph Pulitzer and the Pulitzer Prizes
SND.ies Awards
SND.ies Awards requirements
SND.ies: registration
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