2005 Alt-Weekly Awards: Dispatch from the PDF Trauma Center

The conventional wisdom regarding the Alternative Newsweekly Awards contest is that 80 or 90 percent of the entries arrive on deadline day. Last year that meant delivery people were arriving at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ office in Washington, D.C., at regular intervals, bearing stacks of boxes.

This year, the delivery people came, too. But their load was much lighter because two-thirds of the editorial entries were submitted virtually, uploaded as PDFs onto a contest Web site.

At the 11th hour, on Feb. 4, editors were busy typing descriptions of entries into online forms and uploading files. They were uploading one file, then another, then discovering that uploading the second made the first disappear, then realizing they had to merge the pages and upload their PDF as a single file, then panicking.

For many, help came in the form of production staff, but for the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly, Glenny Brock, it was a grimmer scenario. “I received several text messages and harried phone messages on Friday night,” staff writer Phillip Jordan recalls. “I think she was at the end of her rope. I think she was contemplating ending it all at that point.”

As contest administrator, I could have put all the entrants out of their misery at a certain hour — the announced deadline was 5 p.m. EST — by shutting down the contest site. But, thinking of our poor members in Maui, as well as the mainlanders still struggling with their PDFs, I extended the deadline late into the night and the next morning.

In the weeks following the Feb. 4 deadline, my office at AAN was converted into a PDF trauma center. For whatever reason, some PDFs — like a few of Brock’s — just wouldn’t upload.

That unevenness became the story of the contest Web site, which was developed by Omni Solutions Group. It worked great for some people and thwarted others at every turn. Some editors couldn’t get anywhere with the site on one office computer but could get it to work on another. At the AAN office, too, most of the site’s administrative functions didn’t work on my computer but did work on Assistant Editor Ryan Learmouth’s computer.

The only fair and reasonable policy was to assist those who might have been prevented from entering because of technical problems. Completing a member’s submission became a simple matter of having the editor e-mail the recalcitrant document to me page by page, assembling the pages into a single document using Acrobat 6.0.1 Professional, FTPing the newly created PDF to aan.org’s public folder, switching from my machine to Learmouth’s, downloading the file from the public folder, logging into the contest site as an administrator, and impersonating the member to upload the PDF to the Web site. Voila. Done in less than a few hours.

Then there would be another PDF to be disassembled and reassembled and knocked about from one computer to another. And just when I thought I’d gotten everything patched up, another truckload of wounded PDFs would appear.

Some entries that were supposed to be a single entry containing three columns or stories had been registered as three separate entries. These all needed to be downloaded part by part, merged and re-entered. There were PDFs that were damaged and couldn’t be opened or repaired. There were PDFs with missing jump pages and others in sorry shape.

Meanwhile, 99 judges were waiting for their contest entries. Many of them were willing to read entries online, but nearly 40 percent preferred hard copies. They wanted to bring the stories with them on vacation, read them on the train, write on them. We were going to have to send these judges all the tear sheets that had been submitted, supplemented by printouts of online submissions. For many days, Learmouth, temporary assistant Nick Choate and I downloaded PDFs and printed them out for judges.

As we did, we noted that while some PDFs popped onto the screen in stellar condition, others fell short. One was littered with virtual Post-it notes advising the production staff to add a period here and “continued” line there. Some submissions were tiny files, as compact as 36 kilobytes, and opened up quickly. Others were mammoth. One 37-page submission, with lots of color art, weighed in at 152.7 megabytes and took more than 10 minutes to download.

Once they realized how much time it would consume to download each entry, several judges switched their preference from reading online to hard copies. But printouts had their own shortcoming. Nearly all AAN papers are published on tabloid-sized paper, but the AAN office printer could generate only 8 ½-by-11-inch versions. Judges had to resort to magnifying glasses to read the shrunken print.

Fortunately, in March, AAN acquired a printer with an 11-by-17-inch paper tray so entries could be printed at their original size.

The contest site offered many benefits as well as frustrations. The fact that judges had to enter a score for each entry allowed the administrator to make sure that each submission was evaluated by at least two preliminary judges. The site also provided a space for comments about each entry, and many judges were generous in writing critiques that may be of value to contestants once the competition is over.

In a survey of entrants conducted last month, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they found the online entry process easier than the previous method, in which all entries had to be delivered to the AAN office by deadline. They overwhelmingly favored conducting the contest online again next year. Thirty-one percent were content with the contest site in its present form, while 62 percent said the online site should be retained, but it should undergo minor modifications. Just over half of all entrants responded to the survey.

Judges will also be surveyed about the online site, and results will be used to develop a process that causes the least inconvenience to everyone.