I’ll call last Friday’s Lisagor dinner a big success. Despite the state of the business and all the Tribune and Sun-Times Media Group layoffs in the few days previous, nobody (I noticed) was too conspicuously drunk, or ornery, or lugubrious to put up with. During her brief speech on how journalists need to be nimble and creative and embrace change, Jane Hirt, the Tribune‘s managing editor, wasn’t booed; and during his brief speech evoking his calling’s principles and traditions, Sun-Times editor Don Hayner was applauded. Dawn Reiss, outgoing president of the Chicago Headline Club, and everyone else who worked on the dinner should be congratulated.

Here’s a lovely story. Ken Davis and his wife Linda Paul bought tickets but wound up as guests of WBEZ, where Davis used to be program director and Paul had coproduced a story that was a Lisagor finalist. (It won.) So they turned their tickets in with instructions that they be given to a couple of journalists who couldn’t go because they’d been fired.

The tickets wound up in the hands of Melissa Isaacson and Jessica Reaves, both laid off two days before by the Tribune but prevailed upon by Reiss to attend anyway. And as fate would have it, both won. This led to the amusing incident — amusing, at least, to those who witnessed it from the Sun-Times table — in which Isaacson’s victory was announced but by the time she made her way up front to accept her plaque it had disappeared. That’s because Hirt had hopped up from the Tribune table next to the dais to claim it for the Tribune.  “My friends asked me later if I got to bask in any of the applause,” says Isaacson, “but there was no basking. I had to go find my award.” 

Isaacson and Reaves weren’t the only Lisagor winners who in the meantime had been fired by the media they’d done their winning work for. Ben Myers, the former editor of Skyline, won a Lisagor for his editorials, and because Chicago Journal Inc., which owns Skyline, bought him a ticket, he was there to collect. So was Karen Sorensen, former editorial editor of the SouthtownSkyline Star. When Sorensen found out that Michelle Holmes, the editor who’d fired her this month, wasn’t going she decided she would, slipping in after dinner was served and luckily scoring both a Lisagor for her editorials and dessert.

But the bonhomie of the dinner that filled the sixth floor dining room of the Union League Club was both a brave front and something of a false one. While attendance at the dinner has increased over the past four years — reaching 280 this year — the number of entries has shrunk from 835 to 728 to 630 to this year’s 443. CBS and CLTV skipped the awards entirely. It costs money to enter — $30 if you’re a Headline Club member and $50 if you’re not. There’s less and less money to spend on contests, fewer journalists to enter in contests, and less journalism to draw entries from. Places such as the Tribune that used to have managers who saw to it that contests were entered and employees flattered now tell their staffs, enter if you wish but it’s up to you. 

I finally won a Lisagor myself this year, and finding out that there’d been only four entries in my category took nothing away from the victory. Actually, it made me even happier to have won, as losing anyway would have been really depressing.