Last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors released its list of nominees for the 2012 National Magazine Award. In the so-called "brass ring" long-form categories—reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism and columns and commentary—all 25 of the writers nominated were men.
For an organization that usually gets talked about exactly twice a year—once when it announces the nominations, and again when it declares the winners—suddenly people had a lot to say about ASME.
"Women can’t write, says ASME," went the Daily News headline. David Carr called it a "sausage-fest." Disdain for the organization manifested in the Twitter hashtag #ASSME.
It's easy to imagine the most nefarious version of how this all came about: a roomful of white-haired men, smoking cigars and congratulating each other on keeping the flame of patriarchy alight one more year. According to ASME, however, the judging process is set up in a way that's specifically designed to safeguard it from bias.
Nominees in each of the 20 categories are voted on by small groups of judges composed of magazine editors from around the country. The judges first screen the submissions in pairs, then debate and vote on them as a group. Sid Holt, ASME’s chief executive, said the organization tries to ensure that each judging group is as diverse as possible—not only in its male-to-female ratio, but also in terms of what kinds of magazines are represented and who publishes them. This year, 48.5 percent of the 243 judges were women, though the gender balance wasn’t necessarily 50-50 in every category. (In reporting, only 4 of the 11 judges were women; in profile writing, 9 of 15 were women.)
"Could we reexamine the system and do it better? We always try, every year, to make it better," said Lucy Danziger, ASME's secretary and the editor-in-chief of SELF magazine. "Is there any kind of institutional or sinister something going on here? I don't think so." Danziger called the nominating process "very democratic." Everyone I spoke with who had participated pretty much agreed.
“I haven’t seen any indication in the judging process to indicate that it was the bias of the judges against content that's written by women,” said Clara Jeffery, the co-editor of Mother Jones and a regular National Magazine Award judge. “You know, inherently it’s a subjective process, as with any awards. But I think it more speaks to the overall pipeline of work in and perhaps what the magazines are nominating.”
"We only judge what’s on the table," Danziger said.
ASME doesn't make its submissions public. They did, however, provide a glimpse into some data on what was submitted in the category of Profile Writing, one of the contested categories. Of the 86 submissions, 59 were written or co-written by men—which means 68.6 percent of submitted stories had a male author. (Thirty-six were written or co-written by women.) There was also a big imbalance in subject matter—the number of articles about men outnumbered those with female subjects by nearly a 2:1 ratio.
And for the nominations, of all given to individuals (not magazines), there were only 12 women writers out of 49 stories nominated. (One piece did not have a byline.)
One plausible explanation for this lopsidedness is that there are fewer women writing long-form journalism in general, particularly at those publications that tend to get nominated for National Magazine Awards. At the New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic and The Atlantic, for instance, less than thirty percent of the stories published in 2011 were written by women, according to this year’s VIDA Count, which did a gender breakdown of bylines in each magazine.
"The thing about the National Magazine awards is that the byline gap's symptomatic of the overall problem in assigning to women," said Ann Friedman, the executive editor of GOOD magazine. "It just sort of nicely forces a conversation that we should be having anyway.”
Magazines with mostly male editors often have more male writers in their networks, a factor that influences how many editors assign pieces. And women who write long-form pieces for the most prestigious magazines can have a hard time getting editors to connect with certain topics.
“I think that on an idea level, being a woman does work against you,” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award winner. “Because what you’re interested in is not what your editors are necessarily interested in. Right? They’re baby boomers living in Manhattan. They’re interested in something different.”
Grigoriadis said she recently pitched a story about a facialist who was scamming her A-list celebrity clients. “People were looking at me like, ‘What are you saying?’ Like, ‘Why? What’s interesting about this?’ And so I do think that’s problematic. I think when you have lots and lots of male editors, which you do at every publication except a women’s magazine, it’s hard to get them interested in these kind of human interest-type stories that are based in the world of women."
And this year, much-talked-about celebrity profiles in mens' magazines that were written by women were snubbed at the ASMEs. That the work got wide attention wasn't a metric, at least when it came to pieces by women—and maybe it actually worked against the writers.
Maura Egan, the features director at W, cited Kate Bolick’s widely-discussed piece for The Atlantic—about the implications of choosing to remain unmarried as a woman—as something that may have been overlooked in the nominating process due to an overarching cultural bias that favors "active" stories over those examining more internal ideas.
"That one was a perfect example of something that I thought, I don’t understand why that was not nominated," Egan said. "Every woman I know read that. Every one. I think that story actually rippled out to a lot of people outside the magazine world."
Egan emphasized that none of the nominations were undeserving, but suggested there's a "stigma" when it comes to women writing about the "inner life." She also wondered if Bolick's having appeared on the cover of the magazine for the piece had impacted its reception.
"Does that belittle it? Because all the sudden it's like a branding? But if you look at that story, it was like 10,000 words that was reported ad nauseum," she said. "I have no idea why that was ignored."
Magazines that are based in the world of women aren’t necessarily looking to publish long-form journalism by women either. It's not even in the interest of magazines like Lucky or Allure to go up against the New Yorker in feature writing—especially when they’re already doing well by delivering on their editorial visions.
Amy Astley, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, said competing in the hard-hitting writing long-form categories would almost directly conflict with what the magazine aims to do.
“We don’t do long-form journalism,” said Astley. “We know that our girls want to read and they like our features, but stories can’t be thousands of words long, and they have to be written to them. Which makes the tenor of the whole thing very different."
The same rule applies to service magazines like SELF— which also do win National Magazine Awards for their often shorter personal service pieces.
“Women’s service journalism is very respectful of the fact that our readers have very little time," Danziger said. "By nature, it's supposed to impart a lot of information in sort of a packaged way, so that you can dive in, get it quickly and go back to your life."
For many women’s magazines, a shift towards long-form journalism would mean a shift away from a popular, money-making formula. And yet men’s magazines, which also have to cater to a particular demographic, and to do service, still manage to compete seriously in long-form categories. Men's
Health Journal, for example, is hugely service-oriented—("Avalanche Air Bags: The New Backcountry Essential!" and "50 Things Every Man Should Own")—but still was nominated in the profile category. (Men's Health was nominated in the Public Interest category.)
"Men’s magazines tend to have big, serious, ambitious reporting, and to some extent fiction, as part of their brand," Jeffery said. "For whatever reason—and I think this goes generations back—it's always been part of what mens' magazines do. Whereas in womens' magazines, despite the efforts and good intentions of pretty much every woman I've ever met who’s worked at them, there’s less of an emphasis there on that. There's less support.”
"You know, there’s nothing that says advertisers for ties and mens' cologne are more interested in being near journalism than people who advertise mascara," Friedman said. "I feel like it really is a historical problem. You’d have to start a whole new thing separate from that paradigm, and in order to do such a thing you basically would need an amazing rich angel donor to just float it."
As far as the ASME awards go, women are unlikely to see a huge jump in nominations unless editors either start changing the process through which they assign out pieces, or more outlets exist for general interest long-form journalism targeted at women.
"If you are a wealthy lady who would like to read such a magazine, please get in touch," Friedman said.
Lucy Madison is a New York-based writer and reporter.