McKerns Research Grant: Essay by Gerry Lanosga

20 Dec 2022 1:17 PM | Autumn Lorimer Linford (Administrator)

By Gerry Lanosga

How many times have you started pulling on a thread in an archive only to realize that if you want to find where it started, you’re going to have to visit yet another archive? That’s what happened to me when I began researching what I thought might be the first competition to offer awards to journalists exclusively at the local level in the U.S. The timeline for when awards began to diffuse more broadly into the field – branching out from journalism’s first award, the Pulitzer Prizes – is an important piece of my book project exploring the history of prizes as a cultural and institutional force in the development of journalism as a profession.

My search for the first local prize had taken me a few years ago to the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, home to the records of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild Local 1. The Cleveland guild awarded prizes for the first time in 1940, recognizing work done in 1939; organizers billed the prizes as “Ohio’s Pulitzer.” The prizes were plaster-cast statuettes of newsboys called Heywoods, named in honor of ANG leader Heywood Broun. Western Reserve’s collection of correspondence and other materials was filled with rich detail about battles over the contest’s rules, criticism of the judging, and complaints about inequities toward women, among other things.

What I didn’t find was clear evidence that Cleveland was truly the site of the first journalism awards at the local level. I wondered: What if the idea came from another guild? To follow the thread, my next stop was Detroit, home to Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther library and its massive labor archives, including the American Newspaper Guild collection. Thanks to a McKerns research grant from AJHA (and after a considerable delay owing to the pandemic), I was able to visit the Reuther library this past August.

The American Newspaper Guild (ANG) was founded in 1933, with Cleveland as its first local. The collection at Reuther includes records from local chapters all around the country, and I was particularly interested in 19 boxes of early correspondence between ANG and these locals. As I looked through folder after folder, I found lots of references to local contests, but nothing to dispel the notion that Cleveland had the first.

Feeling relieved that the chase was over (spoiler alert: it wasn’t!), I was able to glean a great deal of important context for my broader interest in how awards competitions continued to spread in the middle of the twentieth century and how they helped define the contours of contemporary journalistic practice.

Prizes are as much a marker of professionalization as trade associations, codes of ethics, and journalism education, but they have received much less attention from historians and other scholars. Yet professional prizes can provide both economic and cultural capital to those who win them, and Guild leaders clearly were keen to create a source of such capital at the local level. For instance, the Detroit local announced its annual competition in 1949 this way: “No, we’re not exactly trying to run the Pulitzer Prize people out of business. This is something local. It gives the local guy or gal a chance to gain recognition right here – from fellow newspapermen.” By 1952, according to an ANG survey, at least nine Guild chapters were running local journalism awards programs.

And, I thought, it all started with Cleveland’s Heywoods. Upon further review and research, it turns out that the Cleveland contest wasn’t the very first local prize. Since making my trip to the Reuther Library, I’ve learned about a little-known Guild rival called the American Press Association, which offered a local prize in Pittsburgh – awarded in 1940, the same year Cleveland’s contest began. And I also found a quirky, short-lived local prize in Indiana founded all the way back in 1928 by a wealthy widow whose only apparent connection to journalism was a romance with the first winner of her contest.  You’ll have to wait for the book to read more about that!

Ultimately, I probably won’t ever be to say definitively where the first local journalism prize was. However, I am quite sure that the Newspaper Guild played a seminal role in the expansion of journalism’s prize culture in the twentieth century – and that Cleveland was almost certainly the first chapter to have a local prize. I plan to keep pulling this thread, although I really do need to finish the book! I look forward to sharing the whole story with you when it’s done, and in the meantime, I am most grateful to AJHA for supporting my research.

Gerry Lanosga is an Associate Professor at the Media School of Indiana University Bloomington. He was the 2019 AJHA McKerns Research Grant award recipient.  

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