At the moment when I received one of the greatest honors of my career, I could not have felt less prestigious.
I was not dressed in my black-tie finest, attending some lavish awards banquet, hoping to walk up on a stage and give an acceptance speech. I was not surrounded by my colleagues, loved ones, and journalists from all over.
I was sitting alone on my couch, in my gym clothes, staring at a laptop.
And that was completely, absolutely, undoubtedly fine.
The TV branch of the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, held its annual awards show Monday night. The association named its photographers and stations of the year for each of its three regions. It also named its national Solo Video Journalist of the Year, in a category full of talented one-person bands who shoot and edit their own reports.
I am thrilled to announce that I was named 2013’s Solo Video Journalist of the Year.
I want to say, before continuing, that I typically avoid using this blog as a way to brag about awards or honors I receive. For one thing, while I appreciate awards, I do not consider them a fully accurate assessment of a journalist’s value in the newsroom. Associations tend to reward certain types of stories — and storytellers — more than others, and many terrific journalists do not get acknowledged because their skills do not translate as well to award categories. Beyond that, I want the Telling The Story blog to be instructive and communal. Anytime I write about myself, I hope to both inspire or educate fellow journalists and provide some behind-the-scenes insight for non-journalists.
That is my goal now, because I know how well this award reflects my own maturity as a storyteller.
I have been a backpack journalist my whole career, starting in sports and then gravitating to news. I spent my first full year in the business as a one-man sports department, shooting, writing, editing, and then anchoring two sportscasts a night at the CBS affiliate in Sioux City, Ia. By the time I arrived at my next job in Buffalo, doing everything felt extremely natural.
I became aware of the NPPA, and its competitions, upon arriving at my current station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, in 2009. By then I had already won several regional awards, but they all fell into the same category: long-form storytelling. When I started entering the NPPA contests, which reward stories of all stripes and encourage journalists to enter different categories, I only submitted my long-form work. I thought that was my only chance to win.
Not only didn’t I win, but I saw how much better I needed to get. I watched the entries that won first-place awards, from both my solo video colleagues and traditional photographers, and instantly became exposed to a higher, often extraordinary level of storytelling.
And I felt compelled to improve.
By last spring, I had won several NPPA awards for individual stories. But I did not fare well in the overall honors, which compile the results from four quarters worth of competitions.
To win Photographer of the Year, one needs to produce top-notch work consistently, and I have always valued the NPPA competitions as a constant check on my performance. If I have slacked off at all or not pushed myself enough during a given quarter, I will realize it when I enter the contest. And I always enter, not necessarily to rack up awards, but to ensure I never let up on improving my skills.
Nearly 12 months ago, I wrote one of my first blog entries about what I had learned from the NPPA-winning stories of 2012, and I said the following: “As I watched this year’s NPPA winners, I could not help but think about how much further I can grow as a photojournalist.”
That is where my heart has always been.
Now in 2014, I have indeed grown … and been rewarded for doing so.
On Monday I sat on my couch after a long workday and tuned into the NPPA awards announcement, a 12-minute Google Hangout streamed live on YouTube. One of the great paradoxes about news photographers, of course, is that they take such care to create such beautiful work professionally but typically shun any kind of lavishness personally. They have about as many frills as a flat napkin, and it’s wonderful. Naturally, the awards announcement was about as low-budget as possible, despite rewarding immaculately told stories.
After several categories, they came to mine: Solo Video Journalist of the Year.
When they announced my name, I leapt out of my couch.
Then I screamed, Terry Tate-style.
Of the many award competitions and categories I enter each year, this one has always meant more. It is the only award that covers, on a national scale, the entirety of what I do. It also covers, not just one story, but a full year of work.
But mostly, I treasure this award because I know how its existence has enabled me to improve. Journalists and storytellers can so easily fall into a day-to-day routine, lurching from story to story and never focusing on how we can improve. I see great value in anything that breaks us from our tunnel vision and encourages us to simply think about our work: where we are strong, where we are weak, and what we can do about it.
This competition has done that, and will continue to do so, for me.
And I feel prestigious, proud, and honored to be a part of it.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.