Azbees Are a Different Kind of Prize

By Roy Harris
Past President ASBPE National

Awards: Don’t win ’em, and you drive your management crazy. Win ’em—or, heaven forbid, win too many! —and you open yourself to charges that you’re somehow in bed with the prize-judging system.

Matt Kinsman suggests in his April Folio: magazine Reality Check column, “No Love for the Little Guy” that there’s such hanky-panky going on in award programs like the Ellies (National Magazine Awards) and Neals (Jesse H. Neal Awards, from American Business Media.) Some of it may be unintentional, reflecting how Gotham-centric the programs are, for example. Matt tallies 78 New York-based Ellie finalists, with only 50 coming from “elsewhere.” Pretty amazing.

And then there’s the corollary issue: “Them what has, gets.” From a MarketWatch piece delicately titled “Why the National Magazine Awards Are a Crock,” Matt quotes Jon Friedman. “Two words neatly sum up the selection of the nominees and winners: popularity contest,” Friedman writes. He then further suggests that the industry would be better off if Ellies were determined by “something more relevant, such as a magazines’ primary subject.”

The Folio: discussion—which, by the way, excluded mention of Folio:’s own Eddies and Ozzies — got me to thinking. Having headed up ASBPE’s Azbee Awards of Excellence as national VP for two years, and later overseeing the program as national president until last year, I had to handle plenty of complaints. Most related to second-guessing the judges. But other gripes did indeed target the seeming concentration of awards each year in a relative few publishing-company hands. We take such concerns very seriously.

My own conclusion about the program over the years, however: whatever their shortcomings, the Azbees are dedicated to honoring as wide a variety of work, and worthy publications, as possible.

For one thing, we give so many awards — 20 categories in print editorial alone, and each of those categories divided into large and small magazines — that more publications simply have a chance. (And digital awards, of course, are now our fastest-growing area.) Beyond that, for most award categories we give regional recognition across four regions, making sure that excellent work from around the U.S. gets its day in the sun. And, by the way, we work hard to make sure that our judges represent a diverse variety of large and small publications.

Diverse judging carries through to the Magazine of the Year and Web Publication of the Year, which along with our Stephen Barr Award for feature writing are ASBPE’s most prestigious honors.

Are there problems with the Azbees? Of course. Lots of them. And many issues stem from the program’s very expansiveness. One frequent complaint: The sheer volume of prizes not only leads the national and regional award programs to drag on (it couldn’t be the hosts, of course!), but also tends to make individual Gold, Silver, and Bronze seem less precious.

My personal response to that charge is that the Azbees have managed, by carefully monitoring the process, not to cheapen the honor of a prize. I’m extremely proud of the stories I’ve written and edited that have won Azbees. (I’m especially proud of one “East Regional Bronze” because it was for a story I had to fight to get in my magazine, and turned out well against all odds.) Besides, the new acrylic plaques are downright neat.

Harris is senior editor at CFO magazine.

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