Nomination fee casts shadow on Crain’s ‘40 Under 40’ honor

Crain Communications

Every year since 1989 I used to look forward to reading “40 Under 40,” an enlightening feature profiling a diverse array of up-and-coming business and civic leaders in the Chicago area, chosen by the editors of  Crain’s Chicago Business.

For the fortunate 40 singled out each year, the designation by Crain’s was as much a prediction of their future success as it was an endorsement of what they’d already accomplished in their 20s and 30s.

Many of those who made the list over the years considered it a signal honor in their careers. (Among the “rising stars” named to the first class 30 years ago were Oprah Winfrey, David Axelrod, Jonathon Brandmeier, Linda Johnson Rice, Edwin Eisendrath, Colleen Dudgeon, John Rogers and Marc Schulman.)

But I’ve come to view it differently since Crain’s began charging a hefty “nomination fee” to be considered for “40 Under 40.” It suddenly turned what had been an open process based on merit into a money-making enterprise for the company.

Crain's 40 Under 40

“To submit someone for consideration, there is a nomination fee of $199, which must be paid before the nomination can be formally submitted,” according to entry rules published online. “The nomination fee ensures that your nominee will be considered for inclusion in the final published story; it does not ensure your nominee will automatically be included.”

Since the change was introduced in 2017 — when I first complained about it — Crain’s bosses have insisted that it’s not a case of “pay to play.”

“As is standard for many respected award programs that require significant resources to produce, such as the Chicago Headline Club’s Lisagor Awards and others, there is an entry fee for Crain’s ‘40 Under 40,’” publisher and executive editor Jim Kirk told me. “The revenue generated by these fees also helps Crain’s provide the high level of reporting our readers expect.

“As has always been the case, our reporters and editors employ their deep knowledge of the business community to select many honorees for 40s every year who have not gone through the formal nomination process. We carefully consider every paid nomination as well. That combination gives us one of the most compelling rosters of business talent honored in Chicago during any given year.

“We also continue to run many award programs with no nominating fee, such as our Notable executives series, and evaluate the mix of such programs on an ongoing basis,” Kirk said.

It’s precisely because I have such high respect for Kirk, editor Ann Dwyer and the ethical standards they represent that I find it so disheartening. I wish they’d reconsider before their “40 Under 40” franchise loses any more credibility.

Crain’s will announce this year’s honorees November 15.

Friday's comment of the day: Tom Langmyer: WBBM’s record revenue actually occurred around 2008 when it hovered around $50 million. They are on top of the market at roughly $39 million. The Chicago market overall, as a percentage, is down more than many markets. That said, WBBM is a powerhouse and is a great source for local news and information. No journalists were harmed in the writing of Rob’s story . . .