Jail deaths

These are the faces of some of the 51 prisoners who've died in Northern Utah jails since 2005.

I’ve never put much stock in awards.

Whether it’s an Oscar, a GRAMMY, a Tony, or a school’s “Most Likely to Succeed,” awards have always seemed to be far too subjective, much too arbitrary, and given way too much importance.

And that goes double for journalism awards.

I suppose one could argue that part of the reason for my cynicism is that I don’t happen to win awards all that often, so my attitude is simply sour grapes. Indeed, whenever school or civic groups invite me to speak and they ask for an introductory bio, I usually like to include a line stating, “Mark is a veteran journalist who has won a number of awards for his writing,” parenthetically adding: “Zero is a number, right?”

It’s not technically true that I’ve won zero awards, but I believe it’s a good enough one-liner — and the actual number is close enough — that it at least has an air of truthiness.

As a veteran of 36 journalism-award seasons, I can honestly say I don’t feel bad when I don’t win, and I certainly don’t feel good on those rare occasions I do. Because I’ve been a journalist long enough to know that the difference between a first-place and an also-ran piece can involve many factors that have nothing to do with its empirical quality.

RELATED: Standard-Examiner recognized in Utah Journalism Awards

All of this is to say that, as a result, I’ve never much cared for these annual journalism award dinners. The idea of trained skeptics getting together to give out awards to one another based on that skepticism always seemed odd to me.

After all, you know what they say about reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” Really? Then how are you supposed to react when your peers say you wrote the year’s best humor/lifestyle column?

Last Thursday night, the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists held its annual Utah Journalism Awards at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City. While I may have attended one or two of these awards dinners in the distant past, I’m sure I don’t remember when.

Mostly, I was there to see an esteemed friend and colleague receive an award named after another esteemed friend and colleague. On Thursday night, Standard-Examiner investigative reporter Mark Shenefelt received the Don Baker Investigative Reporting Award.

At this point you can forget everything I wrote in the first eight paragraphs of this column, because this is the kind of journalism award that actually does mean something.

Don Baker was a longtime investigative journalist, bluegrass musician and all-around good egg who, back in the mid-1980s, showed me and other cub reporters what it meant to be a watchdog of the people.

In those days, my favorite memory of Don was seeing him late at night at his desk there in the S-E newsroom. Don was a workaholic, and he’d sit in front of his computer, hands folded across his ample frame, eyes closed, head tilted toward the ceiling, snoring loudly.

I think it was part of Don’s writing process. Because when he awoke, heaven help the corrupt politicians and incompetent bureaucrats of Northern Utah. Any time Don Baker caught the scent of a story, the only thing left to do was come clean and hope an informed public eventually forgave you.

Don Baker, who died in 2000 at the age of 52, was one of my journalism heroes. As is Mark Shenefelt. And there were plenty of others at Thursday’s dinner — heroes I hadn’t seen in years. People like:

  • Joan O’Brien, my very first editor. We worked together at the University of Utah student newspaper back in the early 1980s, and she showed me what it meant to be truly passionate about good journalism.
  • Mike Gorrell, a longtime reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune who was recently laid off. When I landed my first summer internship, at The Green Sheet weekly newspaper in Murray, Mike was a reporter working there. He was one of the first full-time professional reporters I ever knew, and I confess I had a little hero-worship going on there.
  • Matilyn Mortensen, a young journalist who interned at the Standard-Examiner last year. She won a couple of awards on Thursday for her work with Utah Public Radio, and to me she represents the hope for the future of the profession.

Although I, too, managed to pick up a couple of awards at Thursday’s event (Suggested story headline: “Opioid abuse rampant among SPJ judges”), the real payoff came at the end of the evening.

McKenzie Romero, a reporter/editor at the Deseret News and the outgoing president of the Utah SPJ chapter, came up to me afterward and introduced herself. She told me she’d grown up reading the Standard-Examiner, later writing for the newspaper’s teen section. Now an award-winning journalist, McKenzie all but partly blamed me for her chosen profession.

That meant more than any award possibly could. Because it reminded me that I’m part of a dwindling — but absolutely vital — group of people who faithfully tell the community’s important stories.

While I still don’t believe in journalism awards, I do believe in journalism. And journalists. Professionals for whom things like fact and truth actually matter, even when a president and his misguided followers continue to sell the insidious #fakenews narrative.

That’s where I put my stock.

And on Thursday night, I realized that stock has never been higher.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!