When it comes to covering prize awards to ordinary citizens, journalists are often blas,e or disinclined. But when it comes to competing for journalism awards, whether the reward is a substantial check or only a citation, newspaper reporters, editors, columnists, photographers and cartoonists are all ready and eager. If they win, you are likely to read about it; if they don't, you will have to look hard to find the results.

Journalism awards have been in a growth cycle. Editor and Publisher, the weekly trade publication, last month provided readers with almost 40 pages bursting with listings of international, national and regional competitions. With the right kind of entry one could win a major monetary award, or at least a statuette or gold pen, in one of the lesser contests.

The categories run wild. If you have promoted bowling or greyhound racing, written about city managers or women in banking, the value of red meat or the contribution of the coal industry, travel in Korea or to Las Vegas, you could qualify for recognition and reward.

In competing for awards, newspaper promotion departments prepare imaginative and colorful portfolios. Unusual covers, bindings and fancy artwork abound. Ad agencies spotlighting presentations for million-dollar accounts couldn't try much harder.

Why are there so many newspaper competitions? One reason is that with a modest expenditure, a trade or professional association can offer additional incentive for journalists to write about a subject (in a positive way, of course) and can also reap a deskful of great material for subsequent promotional publications. (The Post maintains a list of contests to which its entries are confined.)

Many awards are named for journalistic giants of yesteryear and provide a way of memorializing their achievements. There are competitions named for Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, Louis Lyons, George Polk and H. L. Mencken, for example, although one wonders what the cynical Mencken might have written about such a proceeding.

Probably at the peak of the prize pyramid are the Pulitzer awards, named for Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and other newspapers. There are categories for letters, music, drama and journalism. If the lights are burning late in some newspaper offices around the country this month, it may be because the deadline for the 1984 journalism entries is Feb. 1. The awards are announced in April.

The categories into which the Pulitzers are divided have drawn continuing attention from journalists. Last fall two new categories were established -- explanatory journalism "that illuminates significant and complex issues" and specialized journalism for "reporting on such specialized subjects as sports, business, science, education and religion," as well as other subjects.

In addition, the category for special local reporting was broadened geographically to include reporting throughout a newspaper's circulation area, but will recognize only investigative articles. The general local-reporting award will become general news reporting in the newspaper's circulation area and will be for reporting "that meets the daily challenges of journalism, such as spot news reporting or consistent beat coverage."

Such changes by the leaders who preside over journalism's most prestigious competition influence attitudes throughout the industry. If explanatory journalism, specialized journalism and investigative journalism are recognized in this way, publishers and executive editors are likely to improve their capabilities in these fields.

While the number of journalistic contests is proliferating, apparently so are the entries. Several of the competitions have tacked on an entry fee for processing submissions, and others have sought financial underwriting from various newspapers.

A relatively new wrinkle has been the circulation of handsome reprints of prize contenders to editors of major newspapers. (One is reminded of display ads taken by movie studios to remind Academy Award voters about their products.) In journalism, a news executive never knows which editor is likely to turn up as a juror in a major competition.