Those National Magazine Awards: Some History, Some Stories

Alexander Calder’s stabile “Elephant,” known as an “Ellie,” is the symbol of the National Magazine Awards.

Winners of the 52nd annual National Magazine Awards were announced today in 20 categories. Here’s a list of the winners, plus some in-depth coverage from Nieman Storyboard and Longform.

The 20 categories are up from the 12 categories when the Washingtonian won its first two NMAs in 1985. Back then there were four general excellence categories based on circulation: Over one million, 400,000 to one million, 100,000 to 400,000, and under 100,000. The NMAs now have four general excellence categories based on subject matter: News, Sports, and Entertainment; Service and Lifestyle; Special Interest; Literature, Science, and Politics.

The other eight categories in 1985 were Reporting, Essays and Criticism, Personal Service, Single-Topic Issue, Public Interest, Fiction, Photography, and Design. By this year the categories had been expanded to include Feature Photography, Magazine Section, Leisure Interests, Website, Multimedia, Video, Feature Writing, Columns and Commentary, and Magazine of the Year. Dropped was Fiction.

Among the NMA categories that came and went: Tablet Magazine, Multimedia, Video, General Excellence in Digital Media, Profile Writing, Reviews and Criticism, News and Documentary Photography, Digital Media Photography, Digital Media Design, Digital Media Reporting, Digital Media Personal Service, Digital Media Commentary, Website Department, Utility App, Community, and Podcasting.

One big NMA change was allowing newspaper magazines such as the New York Times Magazine and California Sunday Magazine to enter. Those two newspaper magazines won five Ellies this year. Other winners this year that would not have been considered in 1985: The Marshall Project,, and Huffington Post Highline.
After the Washingtonian won more NMAs in the 1980s, I was often asked to be a NMA judge. Some memories:

Judges met for two days at the Columbia Journalism School to consider the five finalists that had been picked in each category by screeners, who earlier had met at Columbia. Most of the screeners and judges were from magazines based in New York; for those of us from out of town it was a good chance to meet other editors, including the New York big names.

One year I was one of three judges in a writing category; another of the judges was Otto Fuerbringer, the legendary managing editor of Time. He was sometimes called “the Iron Chancellor” by Time staffers. David Halberstam said he was the most controversial man within Time and the most influential conservative of his generation in journalism.

The three of us sat down to read and talk for two days and pick a winner. We started at 9 a.m. and at 9:30 Otto told us who the winner was. We talked for several hours and agreed with him, which meant we had a day and a half to wander among the other categories.

Before a category winner is confirmed, all the judges had to vote on it but rarely were the category judges overruled. One memorable battle took a NMA from Vanity Fair because enough judges thought the story was too lightweight. The winner instead was a profile of a scientist in a magazine that is now gone.

There seemed to be a surprising number of winners from magazines that folded not long after the awards luncheon. One was 7 Days, a weekly about New York edited by Adam Moss that lasted only two years. The win did help the propel Moss into the editor’s job at the New York Times Magazine and then New York magazine, which won three Ellies today.

Another notable NMA winner that didn’t last long was Manhattan Inc., which was about New York business. Manhattan Inc.’s editors and writers seemed to think the city’s businessmen were there to be attacked and made fun of, and the NMA judges apparently enjoyed it. However, seeming to have some contempt for your target audience proved not a winning magazine strategy.

It helped if the entry was the magazine’s cover story. There was a tendency to think that if the editor didn’t think the story was important enough to be on the cover, it wasn’t important enough to win.

The Otto Fuerbringer incident aside, the fact that judges met together for two days to pick a winner was a big plus. The virtue of meeting together for that long is we actually read the magazines we were judging. In many other journalism contests, the entries are mailed to the judges and deliberations are done by phone or e-mails. I just finished judging one contest where they sent me three copies each of 16 magazines. I had 48 magazines stacked up and spent three days reading and ranking them.

When you’re asked to judge a journalism contest, it’s easy to say yes. Then it’s a lot of work and my guess is that many judges knock it off in a half day. The result: Design dominates, not reporting and writing. It takes real reading to appreciate great journalism.

In all magazine competitions, I’ve always thought design plays too big a role. I never met a reader who said he or she read a magazine for the design, not the stories. Good design is a plus but it’s the journalism that matters, that keeps readers and brings them back. That often gets lost in contest judging.

Another bias in all judging was rewarding what’s new and different. Sometimes I heard NMA screeners or judges say it’s a really good story but other magazines also do that kind of story. Great journalism is great journalism.

And at the NMA judging it all seemed very New York-centric. Most the judges live and work and socialize there and know one another. I once bumped heads with other judges on a New Yorker essays and criticism submission that seemed way too precious. The New York-based judges seemed to know the writer, loved his work, and wanted to send me back home.

Thirty years ago, almost all the NMA screeners and judges were white males, with the number of women increasing each year. When I watch the Academy Awards, it often has the same feeling as the NMAs. Everyone wants more diversity and there’s a long way to go.

Finally, in all judging, as in all editing, I thought the important thing was to put the reader first. If you were a reader, which story or magazine would you read and get the most out of? I always figured the editors at People magazine must be driven nuts by award competitions. It’s the nation’s number one magazine in having lots of readers who pay real money—$90 a year—to subscribe. Readers love it but contest judges don’t reward success—they often seem to punish it and reward the underdog.

Contest judging broadens your outlook and is mostly enjoyable but as an editor I was fortunate I didn’t have to chase awards, to invent stories that contest judges might like. The Washingtonian’s long-time owner, Phil Merrill, liked to say, “I don’t care if you win any awards. I want good newsstand sales and a high renewal rate.”


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Can a magazine article win a Pulitzer prize? In his autobiography Ben Bradlee wrote of his experience as a Pulitzer judge — vote trading among judges from various papers and that conflicts of interest were rampant. Almost (he said) enough for him to pull the Post out the prize business altogether.

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