When Journalism Contests Are Too Much Like Dog Shows

By Jack Limpert

Winners of the annual City and Regional Magazine Association awards will be announced tonight and while it’s nice to get noticed I’ve always thought that journalism contests are too much like dog shows.

In our Washington neighborhood, Labs and golden retrievers are the most popular, best-behaved dogs and neither breed ever has won at Westminster.  I’ve judged a lot of journalism contests and the tendency among magazine judges, like dog show judges, is to skip over a lot of the journalism that readers most enjoy and  to reward entries that have some surprise and cutting edge.

Many a time I heard a judge say, “It’s great but other magazines also do that kind of thing.” Which means that the journalism that’s best for readers and the magazine’s bottom line often doesn’t win awards.

The tendency to reward new and different 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 too plain can move an entry to the loser’s end of the table.

Do readers care about design? I think readers look for interesting headlines and good photography but most trendy design—how small can we make these picture captions?— is lost on them.

At The Washingtonian, trying to come up with stories to win contests was never on our radar screen. Our publisher, Phil Merrill, was smart at getting at the heart of things, at figuring out how to make a publication a success. He understood that contest 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 writers.

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. A beagle, hardly an exotic breed, won this year — also in 2008. Also, over the years there have been many winners that could be considered typical family pets. It’s just that the out-of-the-ordinary breeds receive a lot of attention when they do win.

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