Going for Gold: How to win a National Magazine Award

At last June’s MagNet magazines conference in Toronto, a golden panel of industry experts gathered to present a session called “Going for Gold: How to Create Award-Winning Content,” moderated by Deborah Rosser, president of Rosser & Associates.

The panellists were:

  • Carole Beaulieu, publisher and editor-in-chief of L’actualité, winner of more than 50 National Magazine Awards since she became EIC in 1998;
  • Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life, the most-nominated magazine at last year’s NMAs and former winner of Magazine of the Year (2007);
  • David Hayes, freelance writer (nominated for 14 NMAs during his career, winning a gold and a silver award) and member of the board of directors of the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF);
  • Domenic Macri, art director at Report on Business and winner of 6 NMAs for his design and creative direction;
  • Patrick Walsh, editor-in-chief and brand manager of Outdoor Canada, winner of 21 National Magazine Awards since 1987, and former president of the NMAF.

Risk and Reward: The moderator began by asking each of the panellists to present the story of a challenging piece that won a National Magazine Award, and what lessons they took from the experience.

2008_torontolife2Sarah Fulford spoke about how breaking the rules helped Toronto Life to a surprise NMA win for best magazine cover of 2008. Sarah said she and her then art director Jessica Rose, whom she hired with this specific challenge in mind, took big risks on a cover about gun violence in Toronto, as they bucked the conventions for cover design with small cover lines and other elements reflecting thinking outside the box. The issue sold well on the newsstand and also impressed the NMA judges that year, as they gave it a Gold.

Domenic Macri spoke in a similar vein about a magazine cover that won Gold the following year, 2009, at the NMAs. The Julie Dickson cover presented a challenge because the editors had agreed not to put her portrait on the magazine cover. Domenic showed the audience several of his drafts and mockups that he went through on his way to finally developing the final cover, saying that what he learned from the experience was although there are certain elements required of a good cover, “you don’t have to take the same approach all the time. I think we won the award because we came up with new directions, and because of the words.”

David Hayes mentioned an episode from 1990 when a feature story he’d written for Toronto Life wasn’t entered for an NMA that year, and after talking with his editor, who said he wasn’t able to enter the piece that year due to budget constraints, he learned that he could enter the NMAs himself. Several years later he took that experience to heart when he again discovered that an editor wouldn’t enter his story, so he entered it himself and it ended up winning Gold. “You never know what the jury will decide,” he reminded the audience, “so as a writer if you are proud of your work you should enter it.”

Patrick Walsh described the story of a controversial article he commissioned about the death of a hunter in Newfoundland, called “Another Fine Day Afield.” As an editor he felt that the story hadn’t been covered well in other media, and though it would be a legal, financial and editorial challenge to pursue the story for Outdoor Canada, he decided to take the risk. The risk paid off when the magazine story he published was picked up by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and NBC’s Inside Edition, and his writer Charles Wilkins won a Gold National Magazine Award in Sports & Recreation.

Carole Beaulieu also touted the benefits of taking risks and believing in the work you produce. She talked about a piece from last year she commissioned from a writer about Pauline Marois. Although Quebec news had been saturated with stories about the premier, Carole felt there was room for more if they could find the right angle and give it the right depth. She sent her writer to spend time with Mdm Marois at her hairdresser’s, achieving a kind of intimate portrait not yet seen, and L’actualité created a newsprint insert–what it is now calling a “mini-book” and making a semi-regular feature for the magazine–to accommodate the 16-page story. And at this year’s NMAs, “L’éttoffe d’un premier ministre,” by journalist Noémi Mercier, won Gold in Profiles.

Quote-Unquote: On the significance of winning a National Magazine Award and why we strive for award-winning content.

Sarah: “An award is useful for communicating to our stakeholders that we are successful. It adds momentum to what we do every day at the magazine… We create content to satisfy our readers, not to win awards. But it is our creators who get the awards and the cash prize, and for an editor, that’s an honour.”

David: “As writers, what we have is our reputation, and what we create should stand on its own. Awards are a feather in your cap, not the cap itself.”

Patrick: “We won because the story was beautifully written, because it was longform [5000 words]… We also took risks and winning the award was a measure of that.”

Carole: “I think we should always believe in what we do. Successful magazine stories have that ‘wow’ factor, and with everything we do we try to achieve that. You know that story matters, that content matters. If you believe you achieved success then you should enter, because then you’ll know if your peers [the jury] agree; that it made them say, ‘wow.'”

The Bottom Line: The moderator asked each panellist to distill one piece of advice for winning a National Magazine Award.

Domenic: Strive for strong collaboration between editorial and art in creating your content. Success is a product of a strong team.

Carole: Don’t take things too seriously. Trust your instincts and never give up on a great story.

Sarah: The most successful pieces are the ones where the creators were passionate and took risks.

Patrick: Be strategic, because the more you enter the more you are likely to win. If your aim is to win awards then enter as much as you can.

David: Advice to writers: write well. And advice to editors: hire writers who write well.

In Summary: Accept challenges, take risks, think differently, be passionate, find (or be) the best creator, work together, never give up on a good story, believe in your work and enter as much as you can. That, and always strive for the ‘wow’ factor! 

On behalf of the Canadian magazine industry, thank you to the panellists for sharing your wisdom.

Related posts:
Off the Page, with Patrick Walsh
National Magazine Award-winning Covers, 2007-2010
Winners of the 36th National Magazine Awards

More:
Award-winning work in the National Magazine Awards archive
National Magazine Awards digital Gold Book (free)

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