Why the Award Matters to Me

Sometime after 2 p.m. today people in the office began congratulating me. A couple did it at about the same time. I immediately sensed what it might be about, and a peek at the e-mail confirmed it.

Each quarter Scripps, the parent company of the paper I work for, hands out awards for the best work of a quarter. In February I had a piece run about conversion. I posted a short comment about it earlier on this site. I also wrote that somewhere down the road I’d explain why I wrote it. Today I learned the story earned first place for Scripps’ small newspapers in the feature writing category. The judges wrote:

“FEATURE WRITING: Resolutions are broken as easily as they’re made. People vow to exercise, then don’t. They pledge to save, but spend. They promise to be more modest, yet boast. Writer Steven Gardner of the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., examined the phenomenon of conversion, but did it through local residents who told their stories of transformation. Beyond recounting their fascinating individual experiences, he also included experts in theology, spirituality and mental health to help explain the key elements of conversion. Gardner’s feature was beautifully reported and written. It was touching, but also smart and informative. For all these reasons, he wins the Feature Writing award for small newspapers.”

This award is a first for me, because in 10 years of journalism the only time I’ve ever won an award that wasn’t part of a group effort was an honorable mention for The Bremerton Beat blog. That was cool. All the group efforts were great, too. I know I’ve done other work in the past that was worthy of winning awards, but I’ve concluded that a lot of good stories don’t win prizes. Bad stories don’t win them ever. Not winning doesn’t mean the story was bad. It just wasn’t the best, or at least one set of judges thought it wasn’t so much.

On this story, though, winning meant something more than it would have on all those others I’ve nominated. This story was a passion piece. It had been brewing for years. I first talked to an editor about the idea of addressing conversion a few years ago.

What sparked the idea was my own experience of religious conversion to the Mormon faith when I was 11 years old. All but one family member joined the church at the same time. The one hold-out joined about 15 years later. I recognized other moments in life where conversion to things other than religion took hold. I can think of sudden moments where I was in love, where I chose journalism as a career, where the decision to move to another state seemed like the only choice possible. And I watched as other people made conversions to other religions, told stories of life changes regarding work and others of health.

Finally, on Sept. 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked and flown into buildings or into the ground. As I recoiled at the carnage and the awfulness of the act, I also wondered about the forces that drove the 19 men to do the horrible things they did. At some point in their lives they became so devoted to something that they were willing to commit unspeakable acts with the faith that what they were doing would make them favored with God.

Somehow I had the hunch that what drove them to do what they did, what motivates people to lose weight, what influences others to switch careers and others to overcome addiction might all follow a similar pattern.

It took the commitment of an editor, Kim Rubenstein, to put on paper a date I was to aim for to get the idea into publication. We didn’t meet that first date or the second one. The timing, about the same time many people have given up on New Year’s resolutions, worked out well.

In the end I learned so much more than what appears in the story. Some of what I learned involved the process of creating a long story that interests people enough to make them read from beginning to end. Instead of my usual practice of writing everything down as I thought of it, I looked at what I had and created an outline. Kim gets the credit for that, because she knew my weaknesses well enough to request to see one. The process of writing an outline served a huge purpose in making the actual writing process easier. The one exception was the ending, which in this case really was one of the last things I came up with. It became the single element I was complimented most for.

The story took a lot of work. Every interview I did for it was fun, but it was toil. There were nighttime interviews and at least one trip to Seattle. There was the creation of a draft that Kim had to read and make suggestions. From what I recall, the final version wasn’t vastly different from the first one. We took some things out. Originally I had thought it would have to run over a few days, but Kim convinced me it could work, and would probably work better, as a single piece.

Beyond all that today’s news about the recognition from the company matters to me, because it says what I thought was a question worth asking really was to someone else. I love that the judges wrote that the story was written beautifully, and smart. That’s good for my ego. It matters just as much, though, that someone thought the subject matter was valuable enough to include in a daily newspaper and to offer it special recognition. This award is acknowledgment of the question as much as it is of me or the story itself. And it’s validation moving forward in my quest to write stories of equal importance, though I have yet to figure out what the next big question is.

The award also carries with it a $1,000 cash prize. The first question I asked after hearing the news was how much money I’d get. It was a joke. I’ll take the money and it’s going to come in handy. What made me giddy, though, was the e-mail itself. It showed me the question and the story was every bit as important as I thought it was.