Is it a time to worry?

The Lisagor Awards dinner is May 2. The deadline to submit entries is January 31. At this time last year the Chicago Headline Club had received about 400 entries, with another 200 still to arrive. This year, as of Tuesday evening, the Headline Club had 71.

“I’m worried a little,” says executive director Aimee DeBat. She would be more concerned—and maybe, behind the sangfroid, she is more concerned—if she weren’t still waiting for biggies she knows she can count on, like the Tribune, WBEZ, and Crain’s. “I know they’ll still come in,” she tells me, ‘but it’s kind of weird we don’t have more.”

Where would you be today if the biggies had come in already? I wonder. Three hundred, she says.

Sue Stevens sounds just as blase. She joined the Headline Club in 1969, she’s a former president, and at the moment she’s regional director of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Headline Club’s parent group. She’s seen it all. “With journalists it’s like herding cats,” she tells me. “You don’t know until the last minute what you’ve got.” Ever since the bottom fell out of (1) mainstream journalism and (2) the economy, Stevens has been expecting a Lisagor contest to come along that nobody would enter because nobody could afford to, not even the handful of journalists with actual jobs.

And when the Headline Club digitalized the Lisagors two years ago by turning the mechanics of running over to an outfit called BetterBNC (the website is, “I feared we’d lose a couple of hundred entries,” says Stevens. Asking MSM journalists to navigate a website to enter a contest could not possibly go well. Yet the number of entries soared. Last year it soared some more.

So if this year the Lisagors crash and burn they’ll just be doing what Stevens thought would happen in 2012. Which is largely why she figures the Lisagors won’t.

After two years of inexplicably high participation in the Lisagors, neither Stevens nor DeBat is losing sleep over the obstacle course BetterBNC set up for journalists to navigate in order to enter. At one point DeBat tested the process by asking Stevens to see if she could figure it out. “Computers hate me. I’m technologically an idiot,” says Stevens. But she made it through. “If I can manage to register online, all the other morons can.”

I’m not so sure. DeBat points out an advantage of the BetterBNC system, which is that once a journalist registers (and stores his password in a place he won’t immediately forget), the following years are a piece of cake. Still, that leaves the first year.

A friend who is no technological idiot decided a few days ago to enter some stories he’d written for his own website. Baffled by the Headline Club’s registration and entry process, he called another friend and vented. That friend tested the same waters, found them likewise, and called me.

The Headline Club site asks us to click on “enter the contest under Open Call Login!” and with that it bids us adieu. We find ourselves now in the hands of SmallTownPapers (whatever that is—a sister brand of BetterBNC, it turns out) which asks us to log in or create our own “Open Call” account (whatever that is).

Creating a new account requires furnishing SmallTownPapers (which we had never heard of before) with not just our name and e-mail address but a “contestant website” (what if we have none?), a complete mailing address, and a complete “shipping/physical address.” (For shipping what?) Then we’re told brusquely to “present your credentials,” and we must check off whether we’re employed, self-employed, part-time, or “between assignments”; how much college we’ve had; and whether we think of ourselves as in journalism, advertising, PR, or some other line of work. We’re asked for our job title or titles. We’re even asked if we’ve won awards before—or have judged competitions.

We’re still not done. When we finally get to check the contest we want to enter (there’s a long list), a notice imposes itself on the computer screen. “You have requested to make entries in the Chicago Headline Club 2013: The 37th Annual Peter Lisagor Awards, an email will be sent to you when you have been approved to make entries. While approval by this contest is pending, you may begin making entries. After you have been approved to make entries in this contest, your entries will be released into the competition.”

Stevens says she waited a few minutes and “I got the approval from BetterBNC.” From BetterBNC? Not from the Headline CLub? From BetterBNC, says Stevens. What’s BetterBNC doing with approval power over who enters the Lisagors? I wonder. “I just figured it was a formality,” Stevens says.

The entry process is long, tangled, cold, nosy, and—there being no explanation provided to make us think otherwise—largely gratuitous. That it isn’t impossible is cold comfort to those who don’t have much tolerance for the digital universe when it isn’t warm and friendly; but the Headline Club’s own numbers—in recent years if not this one—strongly suggest we’ve become a handful. At least Stevens is an ally. “I’d go back to paper ballots myself,” she says. “But, oh well—”