Women and the National Magazine Awards: How the Judging and Categories Work

When the nominations for the National Magazine Awards were announced yesterday, they sparked a spirited debate about gender and representation among the nominees. Liliana Segura found that the finalists included no women in the Reporting, Features, Profiles, Essays or Columns categories, though as I noted, they netted four out of the five nominations for Public Interest reporting. Mother Jones’ Adam Weinstein spoke with Erin Belieu, the co-founder of VIDA, which monitors women’s bylines in magazine journalism, about the breakdown. And Sid Holt, the chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors, which administers the National Magazine Awards, mounted a spirited defense of the nominations, and of the existence of a Women’s Magazine category in the competition, though there is no Men’s Magazine category.

It’s easy to feel frustrated with the results, which have roots further back in the pieces editors choose to commission in the first place and the categories in which editors choose to submit entries. But in an extended conversation with ThinkProgress, Holt laid out the process by which ASME assembles its judging pools, and described the organization’s debates about issues ranging from attaching bylines to pieces in the judging process to the existence of the Women’s Magazines category.

243 judges participated in the selection process for this year’s print National Magazine Awards, of whom 118, or 48.5 percent, were women. 40 percent of the judges are editors in chief of magazines, 20 percent come from places other than New York, and 25 percent hadn’t judged the previous year. Of the 20 judging groups, 8 were lead by women—the original plan would have had 9 women group leaders, but one dropped out and was replaced by a man. Holt said his goal is to put together judging pools that won’t produce easily predictable results. “There’s no specific guideline, there’s x number of women or x number of men,” he explained, “but there have to be more than a couple of women or men” in any given pool.

Each initial submission is evaluated by two readers, usually a man and a woman, though Holt said the process emphasizes diversity of background so “It’s not two women service editors. If it’s a man and a woman, it’s not a man from a sports magazine and a woman from a sports magazine.” Those readers initially evaluate the pieces by reading them as PDFs that are uploaded to a website. When submissions move to the judging pool, judges read the stories again in the physical magazines which they appeared, so everything from the paper to the byline is the same. Holt said there have been debates about stripping bylines from pieces, but that certain magazines—like the New Yorker—and certain pieces that are so widely circulated that it wouldn’t make sense to attempt to disguise who their authors are.

Holt acknowledged that the Women’s Magazines category remained the subject of debate, but said it grew out of larger changes when ASME decided to abandon categories in the General Excellence awards that sorted magazines by circulation, which prevented magazines with similar content and ambitions from being judged against each other. “There clearly are men’s magazines, but the number of men’s magazine doesn’t justify having a separate category for men’s magazines,” he said. “We did the general excellence categories for years based on circulation…There was a perception, and it was a reality, that women’s magazines weren’t recognized. So we specifically created a category for women’s magazines to recognize women’s magazines…It was a specific problem, and there are women editors who liked it the other way. We were trying to address an issue in which magazines that competed for readers and for advertisers were competing against one another. It was a system that made sense from a magazine perspective and wasn’t entirely arbitrary.”

And Holt said he recognized the difficulties of a system and a market where magazines with service sections aimed only at men—but with feature wells that aim to compete with publications like the New Yorker—ended up in the General Interest category while Women’s Magazines are separated out. “Putting GQ and Esquire in a category called General Interest, I realize that is problematic,” he said. “That’s a practical solution to sort of an organizational problem.”