Journalism Contests Are Too Much Like Dog Shows

By Jack Limpert

Another February and I’ll be reading through a stack of magazines for a journalism contest and probably watching the Westminster Dog Show. You won’t see many real dogs at Madison Square Garden on February 16-17—most show dogs look like they’ve spent the last 12 hours in a beauty parlor.

Judging magazines and getting ready for  Westminster seems reason enough to again look at how journalism contests are too much like dog shows.
Sitting with Danny, our golden retriever, and watching the Westminster Dog Show always leads to this kind of conversation: “Danny,” I’ll say, “you’re smart, well-behaved, and popular in the neighborhood, but you’re never going to win a dog show.”

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 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 seems especially true when judging design—and you might be surprised at how much design plays a decisive role in all categories of journalism contests. Judges are looking at maybe 50 entries and design that looks like you haven’t tried very hard, that doesn’t look cutting edge, can 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. He understood that journalism award judges rarely reward what’s most appreciated by readers.

We won 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. 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.


  1. good articles!

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