Judging the Azbee Awards: Why Identifying Winners is Such a Tough Task

As a guiding principle in judging in this competition, I’ll acknowledge that the bar is raised to an exceptional degree. Outstanding journalism and exceptional graphic design are merely the table stakes required to play when the competition is all about determining the best of the best.

That’s the backdrop to the critique I’ll admit I applied in a way that might seem a bit harsh. If reviewing the entries in this year’s Azbee Awards was the kind of routine assessment that publishing teams undertake on a regular basis, virtually every one of the entries I reviewed would earn high marks.

But for an awards competition, some entries didn’t quite clear that higher threshold: they were very good, but not exceptional.

That’s not to disparage any of the otherwise solid efforts submitted for consideration; only an acknowledgement that while many are entered, few are chosen for the highest honors.

To offer an analogy: Every professional athlete, whatever their sport, possesses elite ability — speed, strength, hand-eye coordination — that’s typically honed by years of intensive practice. Yet despite those skills, only a handful earn all-star or all-pro status.

The same is true with judging B2B editorial excellence. The majority of entries, while excellent, don’t earn awards.

It’s tough being a judge 

That said, I’d like to share the criteria I used to compile the rankings I submitted (Editor’s Note: ASBPE maintains anonymity for judges on the categories evaluated.). I think my fellow judges would agree, we all focus on evaluating similar aspects of overall editorial excellence, including:

First Impressions

The hed/dek/lede and accompanying design should immediately capture one’s attention. I considered both the premise and the promise of each entry: Did it offer a compelling proposition? Did it “tease” me with the potential to gain valuable information, to access insights I wouldn’t otherwise possess? A “here-we-go-again” approach to annual reports or industry surveys isn’t provocative enough. A mere listing of the contents to come isn’t enticing enough for the opening page or spread. And the use of uninspired images, graphics, or illustrations all served to deflate my initial expectations, and thus, I presume, those of the publication’s audience.


This criterion involves the depth and detail of the information, but judged on a “need to know” basis. In my experience as a writer and editor, the target audiences of many trade  publications are often too busy running their operations to delve deeply into industry issues, trends, and data. But in serving that need, the imperative is to provide summaries, highlights, and conclusions, rather than reams of stats and data. Too often the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to produce a comprehensive trends piece tempts editors to focus on quantity, rather than quality.

“Topline data” isn’t a throwaway phrase; it’s the heart and soul of why business journalism has such value to its sophisticated yet often time-constrained audience of professionals.

In addition, the design and visuals should inform, not merely entertain. The graphics should provide critical stand-alone insights, not serve as window dressing to text-heavy reporting. And every article, every report, every package should focus on benefits to the audience. Readers and viewers should come away better informed, more knowledgeable and, I would argue, occasionally inspired by writing and reporting they can’t find elsewhere.

Overall Value

In critiquing scholastic Speech and Debate tournament presentations — which I’ve done for decades now — the operative phrase is, “What was the takeaway?” Ultimately, whether it’s a debate rebuttal, an interpretive presentation, or an oratorical speech, the audience needs to come away with a memorable conclusion, some lessons learned, an insight they didn’t previously have. As is also true in feature writing, diction is important; the power of a speaker’s phrasing and word choice is expected of a talented writer.

But every speech, every presentation and every journalistic effort must deliver value in terms of new information, compelling logic, and impactful conclusions. At some level, editorial content must affect the audience emotionally, as well as intellectually. There needs to be guidance, as well as data; principles alongside practicality.

Those imperatives are especially critical for Azbee judges, who aren’t industry insiders for nearly all of the submissions we review. We don’t know the lingo; we aren’t familiar with ongoing trends and challenges that impact a publication’s audience — and that’s an assumption every editorial staff would do well to keep in mind. 

It’s all good — but not all great

At the end of the day (to use a cliché that should never appear in an Azbee entry!), I try to make a holistic judgment on each submission: What did I learn? What insights did I gain? What takeaway(s) will stick with me?

Great journalism should equip its audience with the ability to summarize, in a sentence or two, a mandate, a solution, an insight relevant to the issue or problem being analyzed. It’s not easy to deliver on that challenge, but that’s what separates the winners from the rest of the field.

All that said, it is always a privilege and a source of enlightenment to review so many excellent examples of business journalism. No matter what final score I assigned an entry, I stand in admiration of the time and talent it takes to craft the stories, reports, and feature articles submitted to this competition each year.

That might come across as hollow praise for anyone whose entry didn’t receive high marks, but I conclude with my initial premise: Although only a handful of the excellent entries in the Azbee Awards are judged as ultimate winners, merely being in the conversation for such awards — in essence, making the finals even when you don’t win — should be a source of pride, not disappointment.

Making the final cut is a noteworthy accomplishment, one I’ll freely admit I achieved only rarely in the decades I spent in the chairs occupied by this generation of writers, editors and graphic designers.

Congratulations to every individual, team, and publishing company whose entries were selected as finalists. Your efforts are exceptional, your creative output is outstanding and the overall impact of your published work is to be commended.

To conclude with another overused cliché, although only a very few entries receive awards, every Azbee Awards finalist is a winner by any definition of that term.

Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy has served several decades as a writer, editor and commentator for leading publishers in New York City, Cleveland, Chicago and Phoenix, including editor-in-chief of business magazines in health care, food processing and licensed apparel. He is a long-time member of ASBPE and author of several books, including his latest: “Taking It to the Top,” the definitive guide for coaches of competitive Speech teams.

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