I'm seldom a fan and often a critic of newspaper writing contests, which often are riddled with defects and tend to be narcissistic and overly self-congratulatory.

But indulge me if I point out that one major exception is a contest I've been associated with as a mentor for all of its 34 years. It is the William Randolph Hearst Foundation National Newswriting Program, the most prestigious (and best paying) of all writing contests for college students.One of our 1993 graduates, Ben Fulton, who is now associate editor of the alternative newspaper Private Eye Weekly, got a nice Christmas surprise this month from the foundation. It was a notice that he had won eighth place, a $500 prize, in the November in-depth writing competition.

He won for a cover story that appeared in Private Eye last May, just before his graduation, focusing on a difficult topic, blood safety. It was about a Lapoint man, Orville Hatch Swain, who got HIV and hepatis B from a tainted blood transfusion and passed the HIV virus along to his wife. Both died of AIDS-related diseases.

Fulton's work used a book by the daughter, Joleen Swain Ottosen, "The Blood Conspiracy," as a launching point for his own interpretive piece. He dug into many sources, and conducted lots of interviews, including one with Don Francis, the celebrated Berkeley, Calif., epidemiologist who was one of the first to probe the nature of the AIDS virus.

- HIS PRIZE IS SIGNIFICANT, won in competition with 88 of the best student writers in the country from 55 accredited schools.

Then why am I a little jaundiced about writing contests, even some I help judge?

To begin with, the numbers are getting out of hand. Editor and Publisher magazine lists more than 700 for the daily print press, up by a third in recent years. There are innumerable others for weeklies, magazines, broadcasting and advertising.

Many are sponsored by organizations the press ought to be monitoring rather than supplicating. Realizing this, more and more news organizations have come up with guidelines for staff members who are going for the gold.

Some no longer allow reporters to accept awards from commercial sponsors. There are many of these. For instance, a beer company, wouldn't you know, sponsors awards for best coverage of female sports personalities, a cemetery recognizes photojournalism merit, and oil and real estate companies sponsor writing contests.

Some prizes depend on intangibles far removed from the merit of the entry, so that winning depends on a lot where you work and who you work for. Even the Pulitzers, the most sought-after journalism honors, favor the larger and Eastern newspapers, according to one objective study of them.

And when winning becomes a consuming end in itself, contests encourage the kind of blind ambition among journalists that leads to excess, including documented instances of reporters faking stories and prizes. "Self-glorification instead of service becomes the goal," as one veteran newspaper observed.

But then there are the pluses.

- SOME PRIZES DO REFLECT excellence and provide incentives for achieving it. The Hearst contest does. It is well run, the rules carefully amended each year by a screening committee of academics, and it is judged by outstanding professionals. Entries are screened by professors. In the in-depth writing contest the writers had to describe their sources and the steps they went through to complete their stories. The contest objective is solely to better journalism and education.

Over the years, students from both BYU and the U., our state's accredited journalism programs, have done well in the contests, both in newswriting and in the photojournalism and radio-television sections that have been added in recent years. In 1972, the U. department won the whole shooting match, first place in the annual contest, and our students got wide national recognition. A first-place winner that year was Tom Brown, now a Salt Lake advertising executive, who won the spot-news contest for a story done against deadline pressure. It was about the shattering of a Salt Flats speed record.

Students have found contest victories a significant leg up in their careers. One of the best-known is Fred Kempe, now managing editor of the Wall Street Journal's European edition in Brussels, who won a couple of awards in the mid-1970s while working part time for the Tribune and before going on to the Columbia School of Journalism and a distinguished career. He found that winning was a big plus on his resume, for success breeds success, just as Fulton will now learn as well.

* * * *

Getting them to read

One of my discontents in teaching journalism over the years has been the difficulty of getting all students to read the newspaper. Students may want news careers, but lots regularly flunk news quizzes.

Encouraging youngsters to build newspaper reading habits has been a major goal of the press in recent years, as newspaper reading has tailed off or at best remained static and readers have grown older.

A journalism teacher at South Carolina's Winthrop University, Lawrence E. Timbs Jr., writing in the journal Journalism Educator, says that in a survey of his students he found fewer than 50 percent ever read a local community newspaper, and only 8 percent of these spent even half an hour a day with it. Twenty percent said they did not read even one book a year for fun.

An American Federation of Teachers and Chrysler Corp. study reported by the AP last month seems to dispute some of his findings, saying that while book readership declines steeply from ages 9 to 16, newspaper reading jumps from 21 percent to 83 percent. But the news account of this survey was sloppy, failing to tell us how the study was done or who the respondents were or what was meant by readership or how much time students spent reading what - so I don't have much confidence in the report.

But both studies blame television for declines in reading generally. The professor said 75 percent of the students reported they didn't have time for the paper, but 80 percent said they spent 30 minutes or more every day watching TV.

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"Television's hot; reading's not," he concluded.

His suggestion for turning couch potatoes into readers was similar to strategies being adopted by newspapers.

The papers are creating special youth sections often written by people in the target audience themselves (Media Monitor, March 25) as well as promoting newspaper reading in the classroom. The professor is building reading habits by supplementing textbook assignments with reading that appeals directly to students' everyday interests. Some of this material comes from the daily paper, some from biographies or engagingly written and beautifully illustrated magazine articles.

Anything that might help show students that reading is fun and useful, including the discovery of the incredible richness inside the typical daily miracle of the newspaper, is worth trying.

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