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When does a journalism awards category fall below critical mass?

See update on entrants below.
This morning, the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins notes that the one category with no Pulitizer Prize winner — Breaking News — also attracted the fewest entries (37).
What, then, should we make of our own Pre

See update on entrants below.

This morning, the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins notes that the one category with no Pulitizer Prize winner — Breaking News — also attracted the fewest entries (37).

What, then, should we make of our own Premack Awards?

The Premacks, held last night, are sponsored by the Minnesota Journalism Center at the University of Minnesota. I don’t expect readers to care much about journalism awards not named Pulitzer, but the Premacks focus on public affairs, designed to reward organizations in any medium that still care about serious issues.

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(I was pretty proud to have edited a Premack-winning investigation a few years back, and remember the excited call from a big-paper editor when his shop got back in the win column.)

But a look at the entries reveal a certain lack of enthusiasm among potential recipients. There are six awards given — for big and small organizations in breaking news, investigative/analytical reporting, and editorial writing — and this year, a grand total of 41 entries.

The investigative categories were competitive (four organizations in the “big” category, eight in the “small”). However, two of the categories (large-organization breaking news and opinion writing) had three entries from just two outlets; small-org breaking news had four entries from three papers or websites.

[Update: the Mankato Free Press was not listed on the Premack’s spreadsheet in the small-outlet breaking news category, so there would be five entries from four orgs there.]

Obviously, it only takes one good entry to justify an award, and I’m not writing to criticize the low-entry winners (the Strib’s apartment-fire team, the Daily Planet’s excellent “Troubled Waters” investigation, and the St. Cloud Times’ Randy Krebs).

But you look at the organizations who didn’t play in these categories — the Pioneer Press, MPR, WCCO-TV, Fox9, MinnPost, City Pages, any non-metro paper besides Duluth, Bemidji and St. Cloud, to name some — and there’s a point where the award-givers lose legitimacy and should change how they do things.

Well-meaning groups are up against some structural realities: With declining resources and burgeoning demands, organizations just don’t see gathering clips and filling out forms as mission-criticial. In some cases, cash-pressed outlets have stopped paying entry fees. And the Premacks are hardly the only award game in town (Minnesota Newspaper Association Awards, Midwest Emmys, Society of Professional Journalists’ Page Ones, to name a few).

Ada Walton of the Minnesota Journalism Center says her group relies on members of the community as well as news organizations to recommend entrants. Just thinking out loud here, but a truly social-networked nomination process, roping in community kudos via Facebook and Twitter, might yield a more competitive “best of the best.”

Again, while it’s easy to put a pin in journalistic egos, the Premacks really do have a noble purpose, providing another measure of community support, encouragement and pride for journalists who take on the powerful. As the web page states, they “celebrate the winning works and best practices of public affairs journalism.” Reconsidering the best practices of award-giving can only help that.