Journo awards: Is it about prestige, finding that dream job or is it a money-making racket?

By Natalie Beckerink, reporter | SizingUpTheSouth.com

Journalism awards programs can have good and evil sides to them, organizers said.

One reason awards exist is to make money for the awarding organizations, said Michael Koretzky, a contest coordinator for the Green Eyeshade Awards.  Koretzky is also Region 3 Director of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Michael Koretzky

“We need that money, so when entries go down, the money we have to use toward journalism training and education advocacy goes down,” Koretzky said. “Now, there are some really sketchy contests out there and I’ve judged for some, where everyone’s a winner because they just want to keep the money coming. That’s not SPJ’s contests.”

Most awards do serve the journalism community, Koretzky said.

“The noble purpose of the awards isn’t so much to congratulate someone doing great journalism, it’s to send a message to the greedy sons of bitches that if you want to win awards you have to do good, solid, ethical journalism.”

Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director, SPJ National board; editor, Debt.com

In 2015, Koretzky created a new type of award for video game journalists called the Kunkel Awards. He made these awards different — it costs nothing to enter and the judges comment on the work.

When Koretzky first proposed this idea, he got feedback about it not bringing in money, but he assured them he would provide all the funds for the Kunkels, Koretzky said.

“To me, the perfect journalism award is the Kunkle Award,” Koretzky said. “It shouldn’t cost anything to enter a contest. You should get feedback and there should be no barrier to entry because you can’t afford it.”

An issue with competition fees is that they sometimes inhibit smaller newspapers or individuals from entering a contest because they are can’t afford it.

“They don’t just enter everything anymore, they pick and choose,” Koretzky said. “So yeah, if you have a really good story now, but the editors don’t think your story is quite as good, you have to shell out of your own pocket for that award. It’s kind of like a $50 crap-shoot, like do I take my boyfriend out for a nice dinner, or do I enter an award? I don’t know.”

Jill Riepenhoff

It’s difficult to say whether or not having an award gives you an advantage if you are applying for a job, said Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative producer in Columbus, Ohio and an IRE board member. 

“I think certainly that it’s something hiring managers look at, however, if one person has been in the business for 30 years and has produced tons and tons of high-caliber investigations, but hadn’t really won on the national stage, I don’t think that hurts someone’s career,” Riepenhoff said.

Award-winning journalists can stand out among their peers because they can recognize a high level of storytelling, said Jeffery P. Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards.

Jeffrey P. Jones

“Investigative journalism or editorial awards are often pointing toward storytelling that matters,” Jones said. “It demonstrates certain stories that we as citizens should pay attention to.”

Awards are also significant at the college level. Student journalism is the breeding ground for future journalists, Jones said.

“It suggests that their writing or production if it’s broadcast, is excellent,” Jones said.

“Certain schools have strong reputations, but at the end of the day it’s really how good of a storyteller are you, and awards at the student level can mark when you’ve done a good job.”

Jeffrey P. Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards

College media can also be a difficult task to take on since students and advisors are constantly having to justify their existence, sometimes shelling out money to win awards in order to do that, Koretzky said.

“If you’re an advisor of a college paper or a student media director, you need to justify your existence to student affairs or whoever is overseeing your budget,” Koretzky said. “It’s kind of a racket, but it’s for a noble purpose. These advisors aren’t trying to rack up these awards because they’ll get a big, fat raise, they’re just trying to preserve their student media outlets. They’re trying to help the students.”

In the end, though, most journalists aren’t in it for the awards, but to serve their community, Riepenhoff said.

“The old saying is that we’re never doing our jobs to win awards, we’re doing our jobs to hold people accountable for their actions or inactions.”

Jill Riepenhoff, IRE board member; investigative producer, Columbus, Ohio

“I think it certainly has for some people helped springboard them to the next level if that’s what their desire is, but I don’t think that you’re in it to win an award, it’s a nice pat on the back after the fact,” she said.


Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.com

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