"I have been over into the future, and it works."
Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens' famous -- and dead wrong -- observation after visiting the Soviet Union in 1921 applies to Thursday's experience as a judge in one round of the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Better Newspaper Contest.
This time, Steffens' comment is true. The future, and the present, state of newspaper journalism in California is doing just fine, thanks.
With Brian Feulner, the Lodi News-Sentinel's chief photographer (/www.theintrepidsoul.com/), as a compatriot, we judged three categories of photojournalism for medium-sized and large dailies and special sections from dailies with circulations of 25,001 to 75,000.
The entries reassured a young and an old newsie. Despite the financial straitjacket still squeezing our industry ... despite the unparalleled challenges of finding a business model that works with digital media ... despite the IEDs -- Internet Explosive Demands -- detonating in the blogosphere ... despite all that and more, California's newspapers are committing serious, useful and original journalism.
We found images and words -- in print! -- that give all of us still practicing the craft renewed confidence in the excellence of, and need for, storytelling by pros.
Those of us who haunt blogs and who land on the online comments planet know that human communication is now more immediate and adversarial than ever. At the Sun-Star, we embrace the new platform of avatar-starred comments on our work, pro and con. Our reporters, photographers and editors know we must meet you, our audience, on whatever ground you choose.
In return, we want you to read and watch and listen to what we do as journalists. We've got a lot of rules we work by. They can be summed up in three words -- accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
The best obtainable version of the truth, as Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein puts it.
When we fail, you'll read our corrections and clarifications.
That accountability is more honored in the breach than in the observance throughout the blogosphere.
Whether you believe us is all that matters.
That came through Lima Charlie, loud and clear in military-speak, from the entries we judged in Sacramento.
Here are the standards for the photojournalism we reviewed: visual impact; storytelling quality; content and composition; technical quality. We graded images on a point system according to how they met those standards.
"You're seeing the best of the best," Bryan Clark of CNPA told us before we started. Later, other judges from across the country will take another whack at our choices. "They'll see how good California journalism is," Clark added.
Brian from Lodi is a stud photojournalist. His critiques were informed by his own skills. He's also a surfer, a mountain climber, a hiker, an adventurer. His fellow judge learned in the darkroom of the best teacher of photojournalism of his generation, Rich Clarkson, in Topeka (www.richclarkson.com).
We eliminated and forwarded entries based on Brian's expertise as a shooter and his partner's four decades of experience.
What made the session most reassuring were the special section entries that mirror the journalism we practice at the Sun-Star.
The standards for judging were: worthiness of purpose; quality of writing, usefulness of information; graphic design, use of photos; originality of concept.
The entries ranged from 10 to 52 pages. Three of the 13 entries struck us as keepers. One was a 24-page section citing chapter and verse of the numerous corruption scandals that have plagued a county for years. Elected and appointed officials on the take. FBI called in. Indictments. Convictions. Scandals as recent as when the section went to press last year.