Alternative Newsweekly Awards FAQ

Three panels in this year’s Alternative Newsweekly Awards decided not to award first-place winners and several others awarded only first-places, prompting many questions from member papers about how the awards are judged, how judges are selected and what criteria the judges use to make their decisions.

The AAN Web site’s Alternative Newsweekly Awards page has information about this year’s contest, including a link to the Call for Entries, which lists general judging criteria under each category. This page also has links to historical information about the contest, which is now in its eighth year. Last week, a database was added that allows searches of the archives by individuals’ names, in addition to searches by category and publication. AAN plans to add a judges’ database later this year, which would include their biographies.

Following are answers to some of the questions members have asked in the past week about the contest:

Q. What is the process for judging the awards?

A. In the non-design categories, at least two judges read every entry and select the three or four best, creating lists of finalists ranging from six to as many as 20 in the larger categories such as feature writing, news feature writing and arts criticism, where each paper can submit up to three entries. Three-judge final round panels then pick the winners from among the pool of entries selected by the first-round judges. In the design categories — cover design, editorial layout, illustration, photography and cartoon — selections are made in a single round by three-judge panels.

Q. How are judges selected?

A. AAN’s national office staff selects judges based on many criteria, most important of which are: writing and reporting experience, respect in the journalistic community, experience with or understanding of alternative newspapers, and professional credentials. Anyone currently employed at an AAN member paper cannot be a judge. The staff definitely tries to find judges that have alternative newsweekly credentials and/or credits with publications such as Mother Jones, In These Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Slate and Salon, which tend to attract journalists who appreciate alternative newspapers. In addition, the staff looks to recent winners of prestigious journalism awards for judges, such as the Pulitzer, George Polk Awards and Investigative Reporters and Editors awards. We also look for judges on the boards and awards committees of such journalistic organizations as the IRE and the Society for News Design. (We have also occasionally called on musicians with writing experience to serve as judges in the music criticism category.) Each year we use many journalists who had previously served as judges in our contest and had demonstrated enthusiasm for the task, developing a roster of trusted and responsive judges who admire, respect and understand the work our member papers produce.

Judges bios are included in every year’s awards book. For a complete list of the 2002 award winners and judges, as well as the judges’ biographies and comments in each category, click here. This year’s judges’ biographies and their comments on winners will be released June 6 at the Alternative Newsweekly Awards luncheon at the AAN Annual Convention in Pittsburgh.

Q. What criteria do the judges use to make their decisions?

A. AAN gives the judges general guidelines on what to consider when making their decisions. These criteria are included in the Call for Entries. Beyond that, we expect our judges to use their best judgment and standards to make the selections. First-round judges make their recommendations individually; final round panels consult, and often have lively and invigorating debates. Judging any contest is ultimately a subjective process, and AAN has resisted issuing hard and fast rules about how to rank entries, relying instead on the professionalism of our judges.

Q. Can judges choose not to make awards at all?

A. While it has always been our practice to let the judges determine, without restriction, which entries receive an award, in the past, AAN has urged the judges to award at least a first-place, with any awards beyond that at their discretion. This year, three panels independently indicated they would prefer not to make awards in the small-circulation category (50,000 and under). All the judges in both rounds took their work seriously and argued convincingly for their decisions, saying they were anxious to make the awards mean something more than an automatic rank ordering of finalists. Furthermore, the practice of making no award in particular categories is not unusual among journalism contests. For example, the most recent awards story we posted on the Web site, the Education Writers Association made no award in Opinion Writing for under 100,000 circulation newspapers this year.

The questions raised by this year’s contest judging and the lively debate among editors about possible changes in the Alternative Newsweekly Awards will be discussed by the association’s editorial committee before next year’s Call for Entries is announced.

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