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Home > Publications > Quill > What It Takes To Win



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Friday, June 20, 2014
What It Takes To Win

There are so many contests out there, the term “award-winning journalist” is almost a given. How can you think about awards without being presumptuous and continuing to, above all, put your public-interest work first?

By Genevieve Belmaker

John Tlumacki had stood at the finish line of the Boston Marathon for years to take photographs, with little incident. In 2013, he was there as always with his camera when the first bomb went off. Then there was the second bomb. Tlumacki, a veteran Boston Globe photographer with 35 years of experience, ran toward the explosions.

“I had a decision to make,” said Tlumacki, who captured some of the most indelible images of the day. His photographs went out all over the world. Looking back, he believes he performed exactly as he was supposed to.

Tlumacki, who has been at the Globe since 1981, has won numerous journalism awards over the course of his career, including the 2014 National Press Photographers Association’s Photojournalist of the Year and a Sigma Delta Chi Award for breaking news photography. He was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the breaking news photography category for the bombing coverage. (Read more about his work in the "Ten" Q&A interview.)

“The photographs represent the peak of my journalistic performance,” he said. “I wasn’t scared, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

Tlumacki said that being there was what made the difference. His photograph of a runner on the ground — with police running in all directions, guns drawn, the air filled with smoke-filled air — became one of the most recognizable images of that day.

Through it all, Tlumacki remained steady and kept taking pictures.

“It’s the fight or flight syndrome,” he said of his reaction to the bombs. “In that moment (when the first bomb went off), my instinct was to run forward. While I was running forward, the second bomb went off.”

Typical of an accomplished, veteran journalist, he thinks the historical record is most valuable, above any award.

“If I wasn’t there, people wouldn’t have seen it,” he said. “Years from now, people will look at that photograph and remember what happened.”

His work that day and in the weeks afterward also won him and The Boston Globe team a 2014 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news for multimedia.

Tlumacki has said that the year after the bombing was incredibly difficult for him, and news and events related to the aftermath of the attack consumed much of his time. But there were also unexpected, bittersweet surprises. He became close friends with one of the families, the Corcorans. Sydney Corcoran almost bled to death, and her mother, Celeste Corcoran, lost both legs. For the humble, down-to-earth Tlumacki, the human connection is what makes all the difference.

“The real award I got was being able to connect with the Corcoran family,” he said.

Awards or not, Tlumacki knows by now that the key to day-to-day success and survival in the ever-demand-ing world of journalism is loving what you do — even when that means dutifully and calmly recording a terrorist attack. If that desire to be there on the front lines wanes, he thinks it might be a warning sign to take a hard look at your choices.

“If you don’t have that fire in you, maybe you should be doing something else,” he said. Even after all this time, he still thinks the best education is on the streets and on the job.

“It’s still what you learn from other journalists; you can’t learn that in journalism school. How to stand, watch your back, what to do, how to get access.”

Particularly for photographers, being close enough to the scene to get a photo can depend on relationships with law enforcement officials. Tlumacki warns against being adversarial with the police and suggests instead being their friend. That’s one more step toward access and possibly recording an important moment in history.

“What if the big one happened?” Tlumacki asked. “You have to be in a position to respond, especially when you can write about it and call in a story.”

For the Boston Marathon bombing, he’s most proud of the fact that his photos will always serve as a reminder of a terrible terrorist attack that shattered lives.

“I hate to think people will ever forget what happened,” he said. “You look at that photo, you think (of how) so many people lost limbs. There’s still that underlying psychological impact it’ll have.”

SMALL TOWN, BIG DREAMS

The principles of what determines excellence differ little in far-flung destinations. In Alaska, reporter Julia O’Malley has spent years honing the craft of reporting as well as strategies for being award-winning. O’Malley, a metro reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, has won numerous awards for her work, including the 2014 Mike Berger award. That most recent award took a few tries.

It was the third year she’d entered, and she was on a first-name basis with the program administrator, who called to say her five-part series called “The Things That Happen: Two Boys and Cancer” had won.

“She called and said, ‘Julia, I have good news this time: You won,’” O’Malley said about hearing the news. Though the prize money is just $1,500 this time, in the past she received a life-changing check for an award.

In 2008, O’Malley won the Scripps-Howard Foundation’s Ernie Pyle Award for human-interest writing in America. She used the $10,000 check toward a down payment on her first home. In that case, it was a supportive editor who personally wrote a check to pay the entry fee.

Though there are professional benefits to entering contests, even without winning, overall O’Malley believes in a strategic approach to competing in journalism contests.

“I’ve entered a lot of contests over time, and what I’ve learned is it’s really important to pay attention to other entries,” she said. “If you pay attention to previous winners, it helps you think strategically. Then you can think about what to enter.”

Sometimes it comes down to the tiniest of details and an awareness going in that some resources will be needed for support in formatting entries. Every contest has its own rules and procedures, but what works for one might also be applicable for others.

“We followed this time Pulitzer guidelines to showcase work,” she said, and called it an “a-ha” moment when she realized the wisdom of that approach. The clear, standard formatting style is just one more way to make it easier for weary judges to see work shine.

For O’Malley, entering national journalism contests helps her keep up with the standard of work of others across the country in larger markets.

It can also help ease financial burdens. But she believes it’s never a good practice to be materialistic or focused on winning awards.

“It’s never, ever good to be writing a story with a contest in mind. That’s bad ju-ju.”

Instead, she sticks to a simple fact: Judges are readers, too.

“Judges aren’t any different than anybody else; they just want to read an interesting story,” she said. “Write a story that’s worth a read.”

Then at the end of the year, she recommends strategically deciding what to enter into which contests, but avoid those you have to pay to enter. Except for, perhaps, the Pulitzer.

“Especially when you don’t win any money, it’s like gambling,” she said of paying entry fees. If it costs money to enter and also doesn’t pay an award, she doesn’t enter at all. For her, the reality is that journalists need every break, and penny, they can get.

“None of us make any money, and the work is hard.”

INVESTIGATIVE CHOPS

In the business reporting world, Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Daniel Golden has been helping to set the standard of great reporting for about 35 years. The unassuming managing editor at Bloomberg News oversees an enterprise team of reporters and constantly negotiates with ideas and angles that could lead to something great.

He’s only been on the editor beat for a year, so Golden relies heavily on his decades in the field as an investigative reporter.

When he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Golden won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on alumni and donor preferences for children in the college admissions process. An expanded version of the series was made into a critically acclaimed national best-seller, “The Price of Admission.”

He has also won three George Polk Awards, three National Headliner Awards, a Sigma Delta Chi Award, the New York Press Club Gold Keyboard Award and numerous others.

Golden firmly believes that when it comes to award-winning investigative reporting, it’s a team effort.

“A lot of it rests not on the individual, but on the institution,” Golden said. “They have to be willing to give them time off from their breaking news, and there are risks, sometimes legal risks, sometimes backlash.”

So he’s developed a way to mitigate the potential losses of plunging headlong into an enterprise project that might not pan out. It’s a simple checklist of important criteria.

The list is several pages long, and Golden’s carefully guarded intellectual property. But the highlights include thoroughly evaluating the idea at the outset, working from the outside in on a story, being fair, being critical of information obtained and being proactive.

Most striking on his long and carefully thought-out list is also the simplest: Get out of the office. Meet people. Observe. Absorb the feel of the story. And be willing to change your trajectory if you find something new.

Once while researching a Wall Street Journal story about a Cisco Systems program to hire inner-city high school graduates, he came across a surprising angle: Valedictorians at a Boston high school were all going straight to work for Cisco instead of to college because they were undocumented workers who were denied federal aid for higher education.

“I said ‘Whoa!’ and forgot all about the Cisco piece,” he said. “The story you go looking for isn’t necessarily the one you’re going to find.”

Instead, he wrote about a “brilliant deaf student from Brazil” who had gotten into Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She couldn’t afford the top-tier school because she was undocumented and ineligible for aid. The front-page story led to about $80,000 in donations from Wall Street Journal readers that paid for her education.

The hope for reporters when such stories are discovered is that their editors will be willing to come along for the ride.

“Editors want predictability, but reporting and the world of reporting is unpredictable,” he said, noting that as the reporter-editor relationship develops, the editor will learn to trust that the reporter can deliver and the reporter will know how much leeway they have to change course.

The answer to great reporting, for Golden, is very simple.

“You have to go with your intuition, you have to follow your nose. Your intelligence will guide you.”

Genevieve Belmaker, a frequent Quill contributor, is a staff writer for the Epoch Times. On Twitter: @Genevieve_Long

Read more about his work in the "Ten" Q&A interview

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