Reality television has been the rage for a few years, with those grueling tests of willpower in faraway places and unusual ways of arranging marriages between people who've never met.

Journalism doesn't quite jump out as a subject sexy enough for syndication.

My Big Fat Obnoxious Editor?

Plagiarism Island?

Who Wants To Date An Agriculture Reporter?

Probably not going to work. In the newspaper business, however, it's a different, uh, story.

The St. Paul-based Pioneer Press has launched a second version of its "Average Joe Columnist" contest, a 16-player, tournament-style competition that pits wannabe writers _ and their opinions on the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings _ against each other in the paper each week.

The winner will be given a chance to analyze a Vikings home game in December _ on site and on deadline, to be printed in that Monday's editions along with all the staff-produced copy.

"I think that'd be really cool to do that on the spot and see how I perform," said Hanna Loberg, a senior at the University of Minnesota whose first-round entry will be featured in this Sunday's paper.

Lobber should have a leg up on everybody else, since she also made the cut in last summer's contest that centered on Major League Baseball and the Minnesota Twins. Maybe some extra motivation, too, since she was eliminated that time in the first round.

Hurt feelings? No room for that here.

"They were hard, but I think it's awesome that they were tough," said Loberg, a major in sports broadcasting. "I think it was good. They have to be like Simon Cowell."

Cowell, of course, is the tart-tongued judge on "American Idol," the on-air competition for aspiring singers that was one of many inspirations for this idea in the first place.

Hoping to have enough for 16 quality finalists, the paper received more than 300 entries last year for the contest's first edition. Social workers, military men, students, lawyers, financial advisers, teachers _ they all sent in their prose for a chance to play. (Pioneer Press employees and professional journalists were ineligible.)

Since the response was so strong, the staff decided to give it another try this fall.

"I think everybody believes that they can do what we do," sports editor Mike Bass said. "And everybody would love a chance to comment about their favorite teams. ... Well, this gives people a chance to see what it's like."

Bass and sports columnist Bob Sansevere are two of the judges, with an online vote by readers serving as the tiebreaker.

To preserve authenticity, submissions are not edited for spelling, grammar or style. Any blemishes in those areas mean big trouble, as do factual errors or the ultimate sin: sending the article in late.

Topics are assigned by Bass on Monday, and contestants have until Thursday morning to finish a 300-word piece that's printed on Sunday, complete with a blunt analysis from Bass and Sansevere. The winner of each matchup is revealed the following week.

"He attempted to be clever. And failed," wrote Sansevere in one critique this month.

"It's C-O-T-T-R-E-L-L," wrote Bass, reminding one writer of a misspelling involving the Vikings defensive coordinator's last name.

They do give good reviews, too. Steve Rudolph, a thirtysomething who works in public relations and describes himself as a "journalism junkie," got enough of them to win last year's competition. His reward was a column assignment from a Twins game in September, an easier task for him than the championship round topic he had to finish in four hours.

"It was as stressful a time as I've ever gone through," Rudolph said.

In an age when this medium is struggling to retain readers, let alone attract new ones, the contest is one unique example of the kind of interactive push being made by newspapers across the country.

"You want to find a way to be distinctive," Bass said, "and I think this is a nice way."

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