Two weeks ago, mere minutes after the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) nominations for its annual awards were announced, pointed tweets started ricocheting through the ranks of magazine writers and editors:
To many, the shutout of women in those categories was a perfect indicator of the byline gap that plagues magazine journalism—particularly when it comes to ambitious narrative reporting and nonfiction. It's a subject we've been obsessed with for years (read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), and one that got special attention when a group called VIDA began focusing on the problem among magazines known for fiction, book reviews, and literary non-fiction. The upshot: Some of the most prominent magazines in America had byline counts that continue to be discomfiting.
MoJo reporter Adam Weinstein had been at work on an interview with Erin Belieu, one of the founders of VIDA, when the outrage over the ASME nominations began. So he called her up to get her response (read the full interview here):
Not to denigrate the genuine accomplishments of the small number of women who were nominated, but it's interesting that they're acknowledged for what [GOOD magazine executive editor] Ann Friedman identifies as "service" writing—the vast majority of their nominated articles concerning "women's issues"—on breast cancer, under-aged brides, women's body image. These are all worthy subjects and the nominations are well deserved, but it does beg the question: Do women journalists only want to write about "women's issues"? Or is that the only thing for which they're commonly rewarded? Why is it that the nominated men wrote about such a variety of topics that don't seem to be strictly defined by the equipment they sport from the waist down? A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the "tits and nether bits" ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want.
Our interview with Belieu prompted Sid Holt, the chief executive of ASME, to write expressing concern on a number of fronts. With his permission we've taken the exchange that ensued and boiled it down in a way that we hope provides additional perspective on the subject.
But first, you might ask, what are these ASME awards? Each year, ASME members (mostly editors-in-chief and creative directors, or their anointed stand-ins) select nominees for the industry's top prizes, the "Ellies." Hundreds of us gather in NYC to judge our peers. Holt—among his previous posts he was the EIC of Adweek and the managing editor at Rolling Stone—has the touchy task of herding all those cats and soothing all those egos. He does it very well.
Holt's first concern was that those not familiar with the Ellies process might blame the judges.
I know that you know that the problem with the byline count in the awards lies with the bylines on the stories that are entered in the awards, but I think readers are more likely to conclude that a bunch of middle-aged white dudes are in cahoots to deny women writers their due. You know how unlikely that is, given the way the judging is organized, and you know that ASME has done everything short of telling judges not to just nominate the big boys so that women's magazines, smaller magazines, magazines outside New York can get some props.
True! In the six years that we've served as judges, we've never seen anything to hint that gender bias in the judging process is at work. [More from Clara on this at The Awl.] If anything, it's noted and bemoaned by judges that not enough stuff penned by women is submitted in certain categories.
Holt further points out that:
This year 118 of the 243 print judges were women, as were 8 of the 20 print judging leaders and 15 of the 32 judging leaders in all categories combined. As examples of the numbers in the reporting and writing categories, 4 of the 11 judges in Reporting and 9 of the 15 judges in Profile Writing were women.
Holt was also concerned that Belieu's comments were a slight to women's magazines. By way of background, readers should know that the ASME awards were rejiggered two years ago in part to better surface work done at women's/shelter/lifestyle/mass-market magazines. Where once the "general excellence" categories were awarded by circulation size, now magazines are (sort of) grouped by competitive set. (This has created its own set of confusions, but that is for another day.)
Holt: I am acutely aware of the problems in magazine journalism—shortcomings that don't stop at gender but encompass ethnicity and class—and I agree that the byline gap in the National Magazine Awards is indicative of a larger problem that deserves to be discussed. But what surprised me about the interview was Belieu’s apparent contempt for the millions of women who read service and lifestyle magazines. Her lack of understanding of what readers want is matched only by her ignorance of the historic importance of women's-service magazines. Far from being what she calls a "'tits and nether bits' ghetto," these carefully crafted magazines far outweigh in readership and influence many of the magazines that publish the kind of narrative journalism that Belieu evidently believes is the only kind of work worth talking about.
…Belieu bases her conclusions about the awards on nominations in 5 of 32 categories, underestimates the importance of the 27 other categories and disregards the history of the awards. Since Mother Jones was nominated just last year in Feature Writing for Mac McClelland's "For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question," you know that articles written by women are regularly nominated in the reporting and writing categories. Recent award winners in these categories include Katherine Boo, Anne Fadiman [x2], Sheri Fink, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Laura Hillenbrand, Elizabeth Kolbert, Katha Pollitt and Samantha Power, and last year's nominations included Pamela Colloff's second in Public Interest and Jane Mayer's third in Reporting. [Eds: all these are fantastic pieces, though worth noting that some are almost a decade old.]