A legacy worth preserving

The best part of judging a contest is seeing the large number of talented people in the communications field. The worst part is choosing among them.

When I was asked by Linda Koehler of the Times-News in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, to serve as one of the judges for the 2010 National Federation of Press Women Communications Contest, I thought the assignment would prove an easy one. Read the entries, create a rubric that encompasses the objectives and rate the contestants.

Simple but not easy. Reading the entries was a pleasure. Creating the rubric was fairly easy. It was the last part, rating the contestants, that proved a challenge.

The NFPW looks for the best writing and production values in virtually all forms of communication, from public relations and advertising to blogs and books. The organization requires entrants to submit a one-page summary of the project with details on objectives, audience and budget. Contest organizers provide judges with clear instructions to rate the entrants on whether they met their own objectives, not on one-size-fits-all standards. So far, so good.

Healthy Partners cover v1 issue 1There were 13 entries in the four-color magazine category. They included university, healthcare and tourism publications. All were very good, the scores on the rubric close. The winners were: Chelsey Baker-Hauck, Colorado, first place, the University of Denver Magazine; Heidi Jameson, South Carolina, second, Healthy Partners, a publication of the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System; and Andrea Cranford, Nebraska, third for Nebraska magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Alumni Association. The Virginia team of Laura Beck and Mike Freeman shared the honorable mention for the Official Richmond Region 2010 Visitors Guide.

All of the strong contenders had one thing in common: they focused their coverage on the people who benefited from their organizations’ services and not the services themselves. The Richmond Guide showed portraits of successful residents engaged in enjoyable activities. Nebraska used people-centric articles to illustrate larger trends. Healthy Partners packaged those kinds of stories in a clean, accessible design.

Denver magazine cover Our Wild West Jun 2009All did well. But my favorite was Denver Magazine. Under the guidance of Baker-Hauck, the managing editor, the magazine met its objectives with style, producing a themed issue in the summer of 2009 that contained some of the liveliest writing I’ve seen in years. Much of the credit goes to Baker-Hauck for helping to develop the theme — the Western legacy — and hiring the people to execute her strategy. The rest goes to writers like Richard Chapman, whose pair of articles, “Colorado’s College War” and “At Home on the Range,” kicked like a bronco. His two opening lines: “University Hall crouches like a stone lion” and “It’s a chilly January morning five days into the 2009 stock show and the president and CEO of the National Western is pausing to chat with a hobo.”

Peer-focused stories, lively subjects, descriptive writing. And to top it off, Denver Magazine included the results of a readership survey that defined the target audience and showed that editors were meeting their needs. Good marketing as well as editorial.

I’ve saved the best for last. It’s Baker-Hauck’s Editor’s Note, in which she explained the reason for the themed issue and grounded it in personal experience. Here’s the first paragraph:

“My West — the West of my youth — was one of blue-ribbon biscuits baked for the county fair; gathering eggs, still warm, from under the cushion of a hen who would peck you ferociously on the back of the hand if you didn’t move fast enough; stalking through a silent, frosted autumn forest with my dad during black powder season; waking up to find the neighbor’s prize bull looking in our picture window, and later having to scrub the thick track of bull slobber off the glass with vinegar and newspaper. There was ample time for running wild in the nearby Uncompahgre River bottom land, tossing rotten duck eggs from the hayloft, wading irrigation ditches and baking mudpies in the mailbox.”

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t get much better than that. Except maybe the Editor’s Note in the next issue, where she writes about getting her face licked by a wolf. Why is this good writing? Because it’s detailed and vigorous? Yes. But above all, the work captures the spirit of a person, time and place. The details illustrate a larger truth. That’s a tradition NFPW honors, one that writers, publishers and clients can, too.

It’s an easy choice.