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Five finalists, including a winner, are traditionally selected in each category by panels of judges chosen by the administrators of the awards. Judges are, however, permitted to choose seven finalists in the reporting and Feature writing categories. Judges include the chief editors, art directors and photography editors of leading print and digital magazines. Most are members of ASME. A list of the judges is published when the winners of the awards are announced.

Judging results are subject to the approval of the National Magazine Awards Board, which is composed of current and former officers of ASME, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and veteran judges. Finalists are announced in January. Awards may be withheld in any category in which it is determined that the entries fall below the standard of excellence set by the ASME Board of Directors. Digital copies of or links to finalists and winners are distributed to ASME members after the announcement of the awards. Selected articles are included in Best American Magazine writing, published annually by Columbia University Press.

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