Why Journalism Awards Are Often Too Much Like Dog Shows

One of the group winners at last night’s Westminster Dog Show.

This is the time of year for journalism awards—the National Magazine Awards were announced a week ago—and the Westminster Dog Show, which began last night and concludes tonight.

Our neighborhood’s two most popular breeds, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, have never won Westminster. They’re great dogs but not new or different. I’ve judged a lot of journalism contests and the tendency among judges is also to reward entries that are not the same old good—sometimes great—stuff. Often I’ve heard a judge say, “It’s a great story but other magazines also do stories like that.”

At the Washingtonian, trying to come up with stories that won awards was never on our radar screen. We understood that award judges rarely reward the kind of solid journalism that’s most appreciated by readers.

Our neighborhood’s most popular dog.

I got the most reaction from readers on stories that had great reporting and clear writing, that helped them better understand their world, that made them laugh or cry, that helped make their lives better. It always seemed the equivalent of an athletic team—think Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots—winning with good fundamentals, not running flashy or trick plays.

The Washingtonian won awards but I never thought awards had any impact on readership or the bottom line—the bottom line being finding new readers, getting subscribers to renew, and having the money to hire talented writers. Winning awards may impress other journalists but in my years at the Washingtonian I had a lot of readers talk about a story they loved but never had a reader mention the National Magazine Awards or any other journalism award.

So I’d argue that golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are better dogs than those designer breeds and that doing the kind of good journalism that attracts and keeps readers is more rewarding than trying to win journalism awards.

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