By Jack Limpert
Once again this year I sat with Danny, our golden retriever, to watch the end of the Westminster Dog Show and once again the winner was a cute little dog—an affenpinscher, a breed described as a terrier-like toy dog. “Danny,” I said, “you’re smart, well-behaved, and popular in the neighborhood, but you’re never going to win a dog show.” I could say that because our neighborhood’s two most popular breeds, golden retrievers and labs, have never won the Westminster Dog Show. The judges seem to like dogs like affenpinschers, described as “active, stubborn, and quite hard to housebreak.” Just the kind of cute dog you don’t want to live with.
I judged a lot of journalism contests over the years and the tendency among judges was to reward entries that were different, cutting edge, not the same old good stuff. Many a time I heard a judge say, “It’s great but other magazines also do that kind of thing.” The tendency to reward new, different, and risky is especially true when judging design—you might be surprised at how much design plays an often decisive role in all categories of journalism contests. You’re looking at maybe 50 or 75 entries and indifferent design, despite the quality of the reporting and writing, can quickly move an entry to the loser’s end of the table.
At The Washingtonian, trying to come up with stories to win contests was never on our radar screen. We had a publisher, Phil Merrill, who was smart at getting at the heart of things, at figuring out how to make a publication a success. Not long after he bought the magazine in 1979, I brought up the subject of awards and he said, “I could care less about how many awards you win. The only two numbers I care about are the renewal rate and newsstand sales.” He understood that journalism award judges rarely reward what’s popular with readers. He was more interested in consistent quality than in trying to surprise readers with something new and different.
We still won some awards, but they had no impact on readership or the bottom line—the bottom line being subscribers renewing their subscriptions, new readers buying the magazine on the newsstand, those numbers providing a growing editorial budget and the ability to hire talented reporters and writers and giving them the time and money to do good work. Early in my career I worked at several struggling publications—”We’ll try to send you a check for your story by the end of the month”—and we did some good journalism. But I always found strong circulation numbers and the ability to hire top talent to do good journalism was a lot more fun and rewarding than struggling. Or winning awards.