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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

Journalism's Prize Culture   

America's news organizations are caught up in a frenzy over winning contests. That may be a good thing for the winners, but how good is it for journalism?

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

IT BEGINS SLOWLY IN October and November and picks up steam in December. At newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations across the country, a designated person begins tracking down answers to a series of questions. Are the rules the same as last year? Is the deadline the same? Any new categories? Is the prize still $1,000, or has it gone up?
By January, life becomes insane. Twelve-hour days, working weekends, hiring temporary employees to help with staggering amounts of paperwork. News outlets will spend thousands of dollars on entry fees and mailing costs. But before tapes or reprints can be sent off, top managers must make critical decisions. Fast. For contest coordinators assigned this colossal task, the worst part can be pestering those same editors to write nominating letters, which often wind up sounding like Christmas brag letters.
American journalism is locked in the iron grip of prize frenzy. A reporter's stock is apt to surge once the words "Pulitzer Prize-winning" are placed in front of his or her name. An underachieving newspaper or TV station's reputation can be turned around overnight with a high-profile contest victory. Conversely, an elite news organization's luster can dim dramatically if it suffers a prize drought. And so massive amounts of time and energy are devoted to the pursuit of the prize.
Nothing illustrates the powerful passion for prizes quite so vividly as the fact that for months on end, worrying about contests will be someone's full-time job.
In many large newsrooms, there's one person to handle the thankless task of assembling and shipping out dozens and dozens of entries for a proliferating array of journalism contests. On the applications, some identify themselves as contest editors, although they edit no copy. In reality, they are detail-minded workhorses, whose job is to ensure that widely varying contest requirements are obeyed, deadlines assiduously met and entry checks written. Inevitably, they become chummy with Fed Ex and UPS, knowing that a late entry can mean disqualification.
For nine months, prize coordinators perform other duties. But from December through March, they are slaves to contest--not news--deadlines. "In the middle of the heavy contest season, I can't even remember my own name sometimes," Gloria Sandler, Newsday's contest coordinator for the last six years, said in February. "If you had called three weeks ago, I would have been hysterical and told you to call back. Every contest has a different deadline and different requirements about how the entries should look and different entry fees. It can drive you crazy."
The Pulitzers want a scrapbook and $50 for each entry. If you're entering broadcast's Edward R. Murrows, there better not be any cutesy narration introducing a would-be winner. The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors requires that photos be deleted. Some contests demand entries on 81/2-by-11 paper, others require original tear sheets, some insist on mounted work.
"In all 14 categories of the Pulitzer, you can enter up to three entries," says Lois Wark, contest coordinator for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which became famous for its Pulitzer prowess after winning 17 in 18 years during the Gene Roberts era. "Let's say we are entering in editorial writing or beat reporting, and an entry consists of up to 10 articles in each category. In public service, you can enter 20 articles. In feature writing, it's five if they are relatively short. You can do the math. What you've got is a lot of stuff. And that's just one contest."
Such are the complexities of the contest season.
If prizes are journalism's currency, then Pulitzers are newspapers' Gold Standard. Each news medium has its equivalent. And those in each medium know prizes are double-edged. Everyone loves winning them, but no one feels proud of the huge effort that goes into chasing them. Nor will anyone admit that some projects are launched and carried out with prizes in mind, although it's widely suspected. Some feel prizes are accorded too much significance; others raise questions about the judging process. But one thing is sure: Given the number of contests--at least 200 national and scores of state and local--and the massive number of entries, prizes are an integral part of American journalism.
The Pulitzers alone this year received 1,516 entries (and $75,800 in handling fees) from about 230 newspapers and 14 syndicates and chains. The Alfred I. duPont award, TV and radio's Pulitzer equivalent, received about 650 entries. The honor most sought after in the magazine world, the American Society of Magazine Editors' National Magazine Award, received 1,320 print and 60 online entries. And one online contest, the EPpy Award, given by Editor & Publisher, received nearly 400 entries in its fifth year.
"We are the most self-congratulatory industry this side of Hollywood," says Peter Leo, a writing coach, columnist and semi-prize critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Some prizes bring big money to winning journalists. The Scripps Howard Foundation this year is handing out $55,000 to electronic and print reporters. The Harry Chapin Media awards dole out $12,500. Three other awards--the Selden Ring, the James K. Batten and the Goldsmith--hand out $25,000 or more in booty. In the specialty categories, which honor journalists for specific coverage areas such as family or finance, prizes can range from $1,000 to $10,000. There are in-house journalism prizes as well, such as those offered by Gannett or Times Mirror, with generous cash prizes. Not to mention the dozens of specialty-specialty contests, such as the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, which offers a $1,000 media prize. Or the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, whose $500 prize is accompanied by an engraved plaque and an all-expenses-paid trip to the group's annual convention in Vail, Colorado.
"Prizes are the only way we have to keep score," says author and editor Thomas Kunkel, newly named dean of the University of Maryland College of Journalism. "Stock prices and stock options are the only way to keep score on Wall Street. In journalism, we can only talk about who does good work and who has a great staff. But that's pretty subjective. Yet there's nothing more subjective than prizes. Every journalist you ever talk with will say our obsession with prizes is criminal. It might even be venal how much value we put on prizes. But it's the only quantifiable way of the industry recognizing you as a player."

WINNING CAN HAVE considerable ramifications, for journalists and news organizations alike. For former editor Roberts, winning Pulitzers year after year was the fastest way to get the newspaper world to notice that the once-inferior Philadelphia Inquirer was now a contender. When the Oregonian last year won its first Pulitzer in 42 years, the Portland paper's already-improving reputation was cemented in place.
"The best thing about winning prizes is it does attract smart reporters to my paper," says David Holwerk, editor of Minnesota's Duluth News-Tribune. "It says we do good work, and we are recognized by our peers for it."
Winning awards on a beat some consider marginal can turn a top editor's head, and possibly result in more resources and respect. In 1998, Mackenzie Carpenter and Allan Detrich won the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families' gold medal and $1,000 for a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series on parents who hide kids "underground" in custody disputes. "Because we did win a lot of recognition for that series," says Carpenter, "I would definitely say that the visibility level of children and family issues became higher."
But while winning can attract new talent and stimulate pride, the quest for prizes can sometimes have a demoralizing effect. Reporters grinding out daily copy can resent "stars" given unlimited time to work on mega-projects that have little to do with a paper or station's core responsibilities and seem designed with contests in mind. "For everybody who wins prizes, and God bless them, there's somebody who didn't get recognized," says Carpenter, who won about $8,000 in prize money for her series. "I wonder if, in the end, prizes are a sort of corrosive thing. So many good people do really good work and, for whatever reason, don't get recognized. I don't know if, in the long run, that's good internally."
And while a passel of prizes can produce instant legitimacy in the eyes of the journalism fraternity, in some cases they can produce an inflated reputation. A news organization may invest heavily in a few big series while giving short shrift to its daily responsibilities.
"Of course, it's better to win than not," says the Post-Gazette's Leo, himself a prize-winner. "While winning usually spotlights good work, not winning doesn't diminish good work. But some editors have a tendency to use it as a measure of who is good. There's this feeling people are left with that if they didn't win a contest, they are unworthy, and that can happen particularly in an atmosphere of contest-mania."
It's important to keep in mind that awards and journalistic integrity are hardly mutually exclusive. "There are times when a paper or a station might be overly motivated by the quest for peer recognition, and that can erode quality and responsibility," says Bob Steele, ethics guru at the Poynter Institute. "But really good news organizations will constantly strive for the highest quality in their work, and that may also translate into recognition in terms of prizes."
What some find troublesome are journalists who publicly decry prize-mongering and claim little interest in awards, but nonetheless do everything they can to win them. No news outlet can honestly claim that winning prizes isn't central to its operation when it designates a prize coordinator and devotes money and resources to submitting slick presentations. Reprints of hefty series, along with the inevitable "thought you'd like this" editor's letter, become suspect once mailed to scores of top editors around the country.
"There's an overall ulterior motive in sending out reprints," says Kenneth Irby, a former Newsday photographer and now a faculty member at the Poynter Institute. "It's really the phenomenon of getting the eye and attention of other editors and journalists who might be judges or might recommend the work."
KTVX television reporter Chris Vanocur won a 1999 Murrow for his stories on Salt Lake City's questionable tactics in its quest to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. He admits he was uncomfortable speaking at a seminar on "How to Win a Murrow." "I have issues with the title of this," said Vanocur at the Radio-Television News Directors Association annual meeting in October. "Don't get me wrong. The station is thrilled. It's just the way I was raised and taught. Awards aren't the important thing. The work is.... If you do good work, you've got a shot at the Murrows."

THERE ARE CRITICS WHO say that too much attention is focused on prizes within many newsrooms. Rather than devoting buckets of money to a knock-'em-dead five-part series that has Pulitzer or duPont written all over it, they say resources might be better spent on more local gumshoe reporting or daily beat reporting. Two such projects, the Cincinnati Enquirer's story on Chiquita Brands International and the San Jose Mercury News' series on the CIA's alleged connection to the crack cocaine epidemic, were each accused by reporters at the papers of essentially being prize vehicles--especially after both were discredited.
"I've heard picture editors and managers set out with a clear intent to win awards," Irby says. "In most instances, they are people who feel the test of greatness is the measurement against your peers. But I think it should be for the people they serve. In all the judging I've done, I've never sat on a major competition with a reader or a citizen. It's the inside journalism reason that I'm concerned is becoming the more valued voice."
But few journalists will be too critical of prizes on the record, because they might win one someday, and most admit they like winning. If they are critical, say some editors, it may be viewed as sour grapes. So taking an active stance publicly against journalism's prize culture is a no-win move.
"On the one hand, I had a genuine and extremely high-minded disdain for [prizes]--they absorb too much of a paper's energy and resources, they can send the wrong signal to the staff, they don't honor the day-to-day consistency that is the real triumph of journalism," wrote Leo in an internal memo to the staff about the perils of contest fever. "On the other hand, I would kinda get ticked off when I didn't win."
Roberts, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, says it's become "fashionable to deplore prizes. You can make as big a fetish dumping on prizes as you can about overrating them. It's just one of the many things journalists have to keep in perspective."
Roberts sees prizes as a way of motivating owners and staff to do meaningful work, especially in the newspaper profession, which historically has not rewarded journalists with high pay. "It's like every other endeavor in the world, there has to be some reward," says Roberts, a Pulitzer juror this year. "If awards induce publishers to do what they ought to be doing anyway, then more power to them. If you gave most reporters the tools they need to do their job, they can be less dependent on awards. Newspapers get embarrassed when they don't ever win. That's a pretty good signal to send. The message is: They could be winning if they spent time, money and newshole on good stories."
Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus also sees an upside. "I'm willing to argue the case in favor of prizes," he said in an e-mail message. "I know people talk about the terrible menace of reporters writing projects solely for prize juries, and the fear--or hope in the case of rectal surgeons, Realtors, etc.--that putting up a prize will produce an epidemic of series on colonoscopies, home refinancing, etc. But I'm not sure I've ever seen these terrible things happen in real life. I think it's quite possible, even probable, that the existence of prizes induces editors and reporters to aim higher than they otherwise might."
While prize obsession is more commonly targeted, one area that deserves criticism often is ignored. Those who have judged a media contest know journalism's dirty little secret: Many contests are not fairly, thoroughly or scrupulously judged.
There's no evil conspiracy here; almost everyone involved is well-intentioned. Organizations want to encourage strong reporting and writing, and offer tantalizing pots of money (who wouldn't want to be honored by their peers and get $10,000 to boot?). Journalists agree to serve as judges because they want to support and reward excellence in their profession. Almost all journalists take judging duties seriously. Often they do it on their own time and expense.
It's simply a matter of time vs. volume. In some journalism contests--though not all--there are too many entries, too many categories, too few judges and not enough time to carefully and thoughtfully examine the work. That can erode a prize's credibility.
The Edward R. Murrow awards received 1,729 regional television and radio entries this year. Twenty-two news directors holed up in a hotel for nearly three days of nonstop judging, starting at 8:30 a.m. and plugging away until 11:30 at night. The Heywood Broun Award, which offers one $5,000 prize for work done to right a wrong or aid an underdog, received 193 entries this year. Five judges (I was one) had one day to review 193 entries, 42 of them video or audiocassettes with scripts. There was only time enough to read scripts, and entry after multi-part-series entry was scrapped without thorough scrutiny.
The Broun award is far from unique; dozens of other contests strap judges with too much reading or viewing in too little time.
Some judges argue that if a story doesn't grab a reader by the throat in the first six paragraphs, then that entry isn't prizeworthy. Others are wracked with guilt that they can't spend the time they need--especially when, as journalists, they are cognizant of how much effort goes into each project. Some judges get downright indignant when recounting experiences in which a fellow judge pressured the group to make a hasty decision because of plane reservations or a looming tennis date.
"I know that feeling of guilt," says John Carroll, editor of the Baltimore Sun, a former Pulitzer juror and a Pulitzer board member for the last five years. "The Pulitzers have a lot of entries in explanatory journalism. I was chairman of that jury one time, and I have to say I wasn't entirely confident that I gave every one of those entries a fair chance. It's an imperfect process. I wonder about the judging and fairness in a lot of the contests. To the extent I have some influence, I try to make sure that it's thoughtfully and well done. But I have no illusions."

FOR BRENTON WYETH, the Los Angeles Times' contest coordinator, entering between 35 to 40 contests wouldn't be so bad if the deadlines were staggered throughout the year. Then he might not have to commandeer four temporary workers to help with cutting, copying and pasting stories in a windowless room in the bowels of Times Mirror. Entering as many contests as the Times does (and it's not by any means alone) is a mind-boggling workload. It's a job that requires spreadsheet logistics married to tedious grunt work.
Wyeth keeps 15 or 20 copies of each day's paper in the basement prize-entry production room as a hedge against frantically tracking down articles at the last minute. Of course, he could easily get a computer printout. But Wyeth knows neatly copied articles are preferable. The Los Angeles Times submits some of the most striking Pulitzer entries, with the story, an author's bio and picture, nominating letter and one-page summary all impressively bound.
"I actually send out my first memo requesting suggestions for entries about mid-October," says Wyeth. "The initial memo is followed by several other memos [about five altogether] spaced about two weeks apart, each memo dealing with a different set of contests. The group of editors that I contact for entry suggestions has grown to about 50."
Most major newspapers have a list of pre-approved contests they may enter. Not on the list at many newspapers, including the Times, are contests sponsored by corporations, special interest or political groups, or contests so narrowly defined they appear to promote a cause.
When Wyeth inherited the job, it was an overwhelming ordeal, even though the paper entered about 10 fewer contests at the time. Eight years later, Wyeth's got the system down, although it remains immensely time-consuming. "It's still a nightmare trying to hit all those deadlines in January and February," says Wyeth, a researcher in the paper's business section the other nine months. "Right after Thanksgiving, we hit it full-blast, and I do that full time until March."
Wyeth, like other coordinators interviewed, says he doesn't know how much the paper spends on entering contests. Entry fees range from nothing to an average of $50 to as high as $100 for the Overseas Press Club and up to $150 per entry for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. (They can be even higher for television. The Peabody award has a $250 TV entry fee.)
At the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and no doubt other newspapers, entering the Pulitzer contest takes precedence and often dictates how all entries will be handled. "Everything is geared around the Pulitzer," Wyeth says. "We prepare our entries for that and modify them for all the other contests."
Occasionally, contest coordinators make the pilgrimage to Columbia University to study past winners, entry letters and presentations. "I did go look at the entries for the Pulitzer one year," says Newsday's Sandler, who makes her staff redo copies that are less than perfect. While many judges disagree, Sandler says, "I think presentation helps. You want to make sure it looks nice. But I hope it's the writing that counts. I saw one entry one time that was on colored construction paper, and the articles were clipped with scissors. It looked like something I would have done in junior high school. But it won."
At the Inquirer, a committee of editors begins meeting in December to determine the paper's strongest Pulitzer candidates. After the candidates are winnowed down to a short list, the survivors are re-read before final choices are made. While the Inquirer uses a committee system, at the Baltimore Sun it's a bit more autocratic. "Basically, [Managing Editor] Bill Marimow and I chat with other editors and ask what they think, and then we make the decisions," says Carroll, editor of the Sun for nine years.
Things are quite informal at WBAL, a Baltimore AM radio station: News Director Mark Miller takes everyone out for beer and crabs, and they discuss what to enter, or they decide over pizza in the newsroom.
After the choices are made at each news organization, editors are asked to write nominating letters. Some believe the letter is all judges read. These missives can become a contest editor's nightmare. Most editors would prefer root canal to writing a letter extolling a story's virtues. They're too important to be dashed off; instead they're put off. It's the contest editor's job to nag and cajole until the letters are written.
At Newsday, Pulitzer letters are reviewed several times. "It can be frustrating when you know a contest needs a letter, and the entry is ready to go, and the letter is not here," says Sandler, who handles permissions and reprints the rest of the year. "One of my biggest headaches is trying to get the letters out in timely fashion."
The same is true for Inquirer contest coordinator Wark, a five-year contest veteran, who is finishing her final season before retiring. Says Wark, who spent 10 years as the Inquirer's assistant managing editor for projects: "The person who is contest coordinator has to be high enough in stature to get people to respect what you are saying and get it done."
As one might imagine, entering contests for the electronic media can be even more challenging. It's obviously easier to pull a newspaper clip than to find footage from a past story for an entry.
During the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado last April, staffers were too preoccupied doing their jobs to worry about whether live footage was taped. When I visited the three Denver network affiliates to review their first day coverage--an obvious prize entry--none had a full set of tapes from April 20. Last year, when Salt Lake City's KTVX wanted to enter its Olympic scandal stories, the station hired a freelancer to collect video and put together contest entries.
KWTV in Oklahoma City won a 1999 Murrow for its tornado coverage. At the "How to Win a Murrow" seminar, News Director Joyce Reed offered this advice: "Somebody needs to be responsible for making sure all the great pieces that go on the air are lifted and put away, so when award time comes you are not scrambling around saying, 'Oh my, it was a great live shot, but nobody saved it.' "

TOWARD THE END OF January, it's difficult to negotiate a path to Seymour Topping's office on the seventh floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. As the February 1 deadline approaches, Topping, the Pulitzer administrator, practically has to climb over boxes to get to his desk.
In early December, letters soliciting applications are mailed out and a notice goes over the Associated Press wire. Both prominently mention the deadline. But to no avail. "Most people wait until the very end," says Topping, a former New York Times editor who has been handling the Pulitzers since 1993. "Some come in early, but we are absolutely deluged by Federal Express on February 1. Everybody presses the deadline."
Late entries, such as two this year, are accepted only if there's a good excuse. As it happens, this year's laggards, which Topping allowed, were incorrectly addressed. The Peabody is tougher; if the entry is late, the news organization that submitted it incurs a $100 late fee. While most contests say they have firm deadlines, some contest administrators admit they don't always disqualify an entry that comes in just after the buzzer. "Let's just say that if they are making the effort to send something in, we'd accept it" if it came in soon after the January 31 deadline, says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. "If they send something in March, we wouldn't."
Once this year's Pulitzer contestants arrived, Topping and his three-member staff unpacked and indexed each entry by category. In early March the entries were turned over to this year's 77 jurors--all journalists--to find gold for the 19 judges (16 of them journalists) who make up the Pulitzer board. The board meets April 6 and 7.
Once jurors are broken up into groups of five or seven, depending on the category, they begin sifting through piles of entries. They select the top three candidates and recommend them to the board, which is not required to accept their picks, although it generally does.
Jurors or their companies cover travel costs and hotels in New York City for three days of intense reading, which begins at 10 a.m. on a Monday and can continue into Wednesday evening. With 1,516 entries this year, including some lengthy feature articles and multipart series, jurors found scrapbooks piled high at assigned tables. Last year, a seven-member panel read through 159 entries in feature writing, which some consider one of the more difficult categories. Topping says these jurors are usually last to complete their work, "because it takes a hell of a lot of reading."
Says the Sun's Carroll: "I've always felt, particularly in feature writing, it's very difficult for the judges to be in the right frame of mind to read a story that develops slowly when you have 150 more to read that are staring you in the face. Sometimes you can know in the first few paragraphs whether something is a contender. But not in feature writing. You are trying to read so damn fast, so the writing doesn't have a desired effect because the readers are up against the wall."
While the Pulitzers are one of the best-judged contests because of the two-tier system, even their jurors are not immune to the fatigue factor. In 1998, for example, a five-member panel was expected to closely read 158 Pulitzer feature entries, and another five-person team read 143 explanatory journalism stories in three days. Up to 10 stories are allowed for one explanatory journalism entry.
"This resulted in a lot of fatigue and the juries working too hard and too long," says Topping, who was with the Times Co. for 34 years before taking over the Pulitzer operation. "So last year, I increased the number of jurors and instituted a system where you no longer have to read them all."
Topping added two more jurors in each of the high-volume categories--feature, beat, investigative, commentary, explanatory and public service. Jurors generally work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., breaking for dinner. They may not take entries back to their hotels, but the two judging rooms open up around 7 a.m. and don't close until the last juror wants to leave.
"When entries circulate [in the larger panels], if one gets four nays, it's relegated to a pile on the floor," Topping says. "The nay system worked really well last year. For the first time, the juries were able to better focus on the entries that were potentially nominees."
When three finalists are chosen, each panel must write a report defending its choices, without singling out one as a favorite. "By that time," says Topping, "they are bone weary."

ON APRIL 10, Topping will hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. in the World Room at Columbia Journalism School, providing background details on this year's winners. Sticking to tradition, at precisely 3 p.m., as newsroom anxiety levels skyrocket, Topping will distribute a list of winners. The AP takes its responsibility of informing the world very seriously, and has runners on hand to grab the results and sprint down to its New York City headquarters. Other AP reporters on the scene file by phone to colleagues poised to take dictation at the main office and hit the send button as quickly as they can.
The winners' names are supposed to be kept secret until this moment, although often information leaks out ahead of time. Inevitably, rumors float and hopes are sometimes falsely raised. The weekend before the announcement can be tense.
That was the case for Chuck Philips and Michael A. Hiltzik last April. The Monday after the Pulitzer jurors met in 1999, the two Los Angeles Times reporters heard their entry on corruption in the entertainment business was a finalist. "A guy in our office heard it from a friend on the East Coast tied to the investigative reporting jurors," says Hiltzik, who'd twice before been a Pulitzer finalist.
"We just didn't know," says Philips, who owned a silk screening business before he began freelancing for the Times in 1990, finally landing a job covering the music industry in 1995. "I learned all the rumors, but nobody in an official capacity said anything to us. Mike was tormented from the second he was told. I couldn't even believe we'd gotten that far." Especially after the pair was overlooked when the Times handed out its own internal awards.
"Then it was five weeks of pure hell," says Hiltzik. "You are tormented by the thought of losing after a month-and-a-half of expectations."
The week before the April 12 announcement, both were bombarded with messages from around the country telling them they'd won. Hiltzik figured if the prize was theirs, someone from the Times would have told them. But that didn't happen. "When I came in Monday, I was convinced we had not won."
Philips, too, was certain they had fallen short. After all, their stories were about drugs and corruption in the music industry. "I thought it was a real long shot," Philips says. "These were stories about rock 'n' roll. They were far outside the norm."
But they won anyway, a trophy (and $5,000 to split) for beat reporting. It was the Times' 23rd Pulitzer.
Philips and Hiltzik's entry, along with the other 41 winners and finalists in 1999, will be preserved at Columbia University's Butler Library in the rare books section on the sixth floor. Unlike most contests, the Pulitzers will return unsuccessful entries if asked. Some "losers" are offered to the Columbia journalism faculty, a practice many contests adopt, sending entries to j-schools around the country.
But what of the other Pulitzer entries? They suffer the same fate as hundreds of other contest entries that fail to rise to the top. Tossed into a pile, the rejects form what one judge called "a mountain of broken dreams." Eventually, they wind up in the trash.
A heap of entries stacked haphazardly on the floor can be a discouraging sight. As Nicole Brodeur tossed another also-ran into a clutter of discards stacked up in the corner, the 1999 National Headliner judge winced. "It sure makes me want to work harder, always harder," says Brodeur, a Seattle Times columnist and former Headliner winner. "I never want to end up on the pile."