Magazine awards reflect industry changes

With a record number of entries this year, the National Magazine Awards, also known as the Ellies, are considered a major benchmark for US publications.

With a record number of entries this year, the National Magazine Awards, also known as the Ellies, are considered a major benchmark for US publications. Because of the publicity that the awards generate, editors regard the annual ceremony as both an honor and a means to test their editorial mettle against competitors.

Chris Johns, editor-in-chief of National Geographic, which won a general excellence award for publications with a circulation of more than 2 million, says the awards are "terribly important."

"They're valued by our readers, and it means a lot to me and our staff," he says.

National Geographic also received two other awards in reporting and photojournalism. Nominated in five categories, the title was the lone publication to notch three awards for 2007.

Johns notes that the reporting win for Peter Hessler's story, "China's Instant Cities," which has more than 7,000 words, was not surprising, simply based on the piece's depth and insight.

Yet, despite the improvement of Web publications in both content and imagery, Johns says the awards remain relevant to the magazine industry, if not more so than the days when print was the only game in town.

"The Web is a very strong ally and a friend," he says. "We've racked up quite a bit of blog action over the awards."

The American Society of Magazine Editors reported 1,964 entries, an increase of nearly 200 over the year before, from 333 print and online magazines, says Marlene Kahan, the executive director of the ASME, the organization that sponsors the Ellies.

"Magazine editors are still excited about what they do, in the print world or otherwise," she says. "It speaks to their enthusiasm."

Notably, the organization decided this year to open up some traditional print categories - reporting, public interest, feature writing, profile writing, essays, reviews and criticism, columns and commentary, and fiction - to online outlets. The ASME also offers awards for general online excellence, personal service online, and best interactive feature.

"It's excellent in whatever form it's presented to us," Kahan says.

Some Ellie favorites did see a shift in this year's awards. Traditional favorite New York had nine nominations, but walked away with only one award in the leisure interests category. Five publications won for the first time: Atlanta, Bicycling, Conde Nast Portfolio, New Letters, and Runner's World.

Adam Moss, editor-in-chief for New York, was unavailable for comment.

The awards are useful to the staff members of regional general interest publication Atlanta because they use the honors to evaluate the work of the year before.

"The more rigorous, the more meaningful," says Rebecca Burns, the magazine's editor-in-chief. "They've thought it through."

The honors also enable a magazine to better measure itself against its competitors, both regional and national. Last nominated in the 1980s, Atlanta won for "You have thousands of angels around you" by Paige Williams, an article entered in the feature-writing category.

"Very few pieces hold up to that level," Burns says. "It's really useful to use that as a reflective tool."

Editors and publishers can also use the award wins, or even the nominations themselves, to boost morale in their newsrooms. The atmosphere at the awards ceremony also reinforces to journalists that print may not be a dying industry after all, Kahan says.

"It's good for the staff and it creates excitement," she says. "If you were in the room that night, (you'd see) it makes everyone feel good about what they do."

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