Is it real? You better believe it.
"Come on, seriously -- it's rigged, right?"
It's a question everyone who's ever worked at the City Paper has been asked at some point, usually with increasing frequency as Best of Charleston ballots appear online and in the paper at the beginning of each year. The implication, of course, is that the whole annual Best Of shebang is a charade, an elaborate hoax perpetrated on the 130,000 weekly readers of the paper, all for the sake of sucking up to a few loyal advertisers and other folks friendly to the paper.
Any regular reader of the paper knows it's simply not so. We didn't get to the 10-year mark and a 220-page issue by playing footsie with our advertisers under the table. They buy ads in the City Paper because a whole bunch of people read it -- not because we have a policy of saying nice things about them (skeptics are referred to any of our restaurant reviews.) And people read the paper because they trust us to tell it like it is, not because we're blowing sunshine up the hindquarters of local retailers in some slimy quid pro quo.
And come on, would so many non-advertisers really win BOC categories year after year (e.g. Jestine's Kitchen, Whole Foods, GDC, Gerald's Tires, Charleston Lighting & Interiors, and dozens more) if we were cooking the books? Don't even get us started on your vote for Best Local Website (page 38).
That's not to say some of us have never fantasized about gleefully pitching bundles of paper ballots onto a great big bonfire behind the office and picking the 275 BOC winners over beers at the nearest bar. Every year, the Best of Charleston issue is the single most time-consuming, patience-testing, ulcer-inducing issue we put out. If there were a way to legitimately make it less of a trial for us, we'd leap at it.
Often, though, time-saving ideas have themselves been mere fantasies. Consider, for example, our introduction of online balloting in 2003. It seemed like a godsend: no longer did we have to create wall-sized grids for the categories, ticking off hash marks for each vote a potential winner received on a paper ballot. And readers loved it -- finally, the City Paper was joining the online community! But it didn't save us a lick of time; if anything, it simply created more problems. Sure, lots of people were voting online, but we still had paper ballots out there, all of which had to be entered into the system by hand (the ink-smudged hands of a rotating host of interns).
Eventually, the inevitable occurred: in 2004, a goof with the central server extinguished in an electric blink the records of almost 1,000 paper ballots that had been laboriously entered, just days before the issue deadline.
What could we do? There was only one option available to us with so little time remaining: we contacted a local temp agency, had them send over 12 of their most nimble-fingered data-entry specialists, and forked over a small fortune to have 1,000 of our readers' ballots re-entered into the database so that the final tabulation would be fair and accurate. Publisher: unhappy. Interns: pissed. Temp workers: delighted and focused on typing as slowly as possible. Readers: completely, utterly oblivious. Plus they had a monkey on the cover of the paper, so what did they care? (There's a whole other article on that subject.)
Today, our online balloting is a lot more reliable than it was in 2003, but it's still not much of a timesaver. And it's created its own, fresh new catalog of miseries and headaches for us. (See 'Stuff Happens' at right.) We still print paper ballots, and people still -- remarkably -- fill them out. We sort through piles of newsprint; wear our fingers out entering smartassed votes that have no chance of winning (Best Restaurant: "My mom's house"); waste days eliminating ballot stuffers; count, recount, and re-recount; and spend endless hours checking addresses, names, titles, and spellings.
And we do it all for you, reader, simply so you'll know who you -- in your infinite wisdom, peerless experience, and unimpeachable taste -- have chosen as The Best. So thanks. It wouldn't be possible without you.
Though we could do without the smartassed answers.