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Newspaper people can certainly dream big


February 5, 2021

Jana and I were doing the math. It’s a common game to play after the awards ceremony at the annual convention that draws newspaper people in from across the state each January.

We win this, enter that, carry the one … we could have a trophy. Someday.

That’s what we kicked around last year after the ceremony that was part of the last in-person convention we can expect for a while.

Each year, the Minnesota Newspaper Association hosts what it calls the “Better Newspaper Contest.” Newspapers large and small submit entries of the best writing, design, advertising and photography during the past year with the hope that a judge from another state will deem their work worthy of a first-, second- or third-place designation.

There are roughly 260 weeklies in the state, of all shapes and sizes when it comes to staff, circulation and coverage areas. A lot of them submit items to the contest. When you throw in the 23 daily papers across the state, there were 3,102 entries in 41 categories. To get top billing in a category, on average, you have to beat out nearly two dozen entries.

There is a complicated system used to assign points for each newspaper based on how it, and staff members, placed in each category. The top point-getters among daily and weekly papers get trophies and can rightfully gloat for a year about being the best paper in the state.

We had dreams last year. They were clouds in our coffee.

I’ve been doing that math for a long time, since I first started working at weeklies in 1993. I’ve had stints at dailies peppered in since then, but it’s the weeklies that really get my journalism blood going.

It’s here where you always have too little staff and too much work. So you do it all. And you do it in relatively quiet desperation.

Technically, I’m a part-timer at the Pine Knot. You don’t want to know the hours Jana, Rose and Ivan put in each week to produce what you’re reading right now.

Our profession has taken a beating in the past — oh, my — two decades or so. And while weekly papers, if they have a strong base of support, have been able to weather the storms, our work can be very isolating. We spend a lot of time working in the community and at our office. But we have too few precious moments to talk about our work, our craft, with like minds.

The annual convention is a chance to do that, to see what others crawling out of their offices are experiencing. The conversations are always filled with knowing head bobs and much consoling.

The awards mean a lot. It means your peers see your work and recognize quality journalism.

It’s great to have this once a year. A breather. A chance to bask, if only for a few days.

Of course, none of that was possible this year under the lingering pandemic. So we watched a recorded ceremony online last Thursday, a scrolling list of state newspapers and what they had won in the contest. The newspaper association tells you a month or so in advance that “you’ve won” but offers no details. So, while we knew we had won a lot of awards, we didn’t know what they were for or where we placed.

We’ve talked to more than a few people in the business the past week, fellow followers of the contest each year, and most said they’d never heard of a paper getting more than 30 awards in one year. I recall that only a few years ago, papers would win with just a third that many awards. The number of papers has shrunk, to be sure, and perhaps the number of those submitting to the contest has contracted.

No matter. That the Pine Knot received 33 awards is, frankly, gleefully obscene. We swept whole categories. We won 15 first places, including the big-points and big-deal category of “General Excellence” and, just as important, a feast of reporting wins.

There was little need to quibble about the math. Last year’s winner of the Mills Trophy, the Echo Press in Alexandria, did it with 30 awards. They had that many again this year, and we just outpaced them.

Funny enough, Jana and I talked very little about hardware prospects before last week’s announcement. I think we both had jinxing it on our minds simultaneously.

It’s still difficult to wrap my head around the fact that our little paper has won one of the biggest journalism prizes in the state of Minnesota. And in case you didn’t know, our state is known for professional standards unequaled anywhere in the country. It’s a big deal. And I am honored.

The Pine Knot story isn’t a typical one for the industry these days. While newspapers are slipping into the abyss and news deserts are left in the wake of that loss, that wasn’t the case here. Simply, a group of people who thought this part of the county deserved a more local approach to news decided to start up the Pine Knot. And here we are, less than three years in, and already a superstar in the newspaper ranks.

Has the Pine Knot achieved what it set out to do? Yes, sort of. There is certainly more room for subscribers and advertisers but there is no doubt that we are your community newspaper. The only one worth picking up week after week. That isn’t chest thumping with intent to slight the so-called local competition. It’s merely fact.

And we have 33 reasons and one trophy allowing us to say we are your best choice for news and information in this part of the world. Hell, we’re the only choice.

We’ll come back down to earth. We’ll likely be doing that math again next year. Who knows? Can we stave off those other weeklies in the state that have quadruple the subscribers and staff and win the trophy again? Maybe.

Our focus remains on what you see on the pages each week. We are basking in the glow, for sure. It’s fleeting.

Now, it’s back to work.

Mike Creger is a writer and page designer for the Pine Knot News. He can be reached at [email protected]


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