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Where Are the Women Writers? ASME Chief Responds.

MoJo's editors and the American Society of Magazine Editors' Sid Holt discuss the byline gap.

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Holt goes on to talk about how Belieu doesn't mention Public Interest—typically, classic investigative journalism—where 4 of the 5 nominees this year are women. Our reply:

Belieu was not among the originators of this criticism; the choice of categories addressed, and the failure to take note of the women nominated in the Public Interest category, should not be laid at her feet…Belieu's opinions are of course her own, though we didn't find them to be contemptuous of the enormous role of women's magazines—what we read was simply frustration that the accomplishments of women in this area have not been fully translated to the broader industry.

Nowhere, including in this interview, have we seen anyone imply that the fault lies with ASME or its judges…The problem originates not with any bias in the judging, but with too few women getting assignments for the types of pieces that fall into those categories. Perhaps it is compounded by too few deserving pieces penned by women being put forward by ASME member pubs. More broadly, women are often pigeonholed into certain kinds of assignments, and they pigeonhole themselves.

You talk of "what readers want." Here is some of the most fascinating terrain in this debate: Why is it that (most) men's magazines consider ambitious reporting and storytelling to be essential to their brands, and women's magazines don't? Every woman we've ever met—including all the smart and wonderful women's magazine editors we've met through ASME—wishes it were otherwise. We think Belieu speaks to this state of affairs quite eloquently.

Why is it that (most) men's magazines consider ambitious reporting and storytelling to be essential to their brands, and women's magazines don't?

ASME has ensured that the brilliant work done by women's magazine has a chance to be properly honored. Bravo. But that doesn't address the broader issue the critics raised.

The byline gap—in ASME nominations, and more generally—is a problem that has many causes, none of which will be addressed unless they are first acknowledged, discussed, debated.

Holt's reply:

The judges are judging the magazines we have, not the magazines we wish we had. The problem with the awards that the byline disparity actually reveals is not that women writers are underrepresented, but that narrative journalism is over-represented—that 7 out of 20 categories for this kind of work is disproportionate to the categories allotted for, say, service journalism. The reason long-form journalism doesn’t have a place in women's magazines is that the audiences are too big—it’s the same reason multiplexes show "The Hunger Games" and not "Bully." The magazines that do publish it get away with it because their business models are different—which is another way of saying their circs are smaller.

We asked why he thought men's magazines are more immune from those forces—or why size would be a limiting factor. (For example, ESPN the Magazine, at 2 million readers, is nearly as big as Glamour, O, or Redbook, but it publishes significantly more narrative journalism.) Holt's reply:

We’re really talking about a handful of magazines. Most magazines, whether they’re read by women or men, don’t publish investigative reporting or 10,000-word feature stories—they focus on things like fashion, travel, food, health and fitness. And when you do look at the magazines that publish long form, what you find is magazines like The New Yorker, whose readership is 50 percent women, or Vanity Fair, whose readership is 75 percent women. There are exceptions like Esquire and GQ, but the reason they publish long-form journalism has more to do with who the editors were and are than their being magazines whose primary audience is men. And you also have to remember that the long-form journalism is often complemented—in some ways, supported—by other kinds of content. What’s the first thing readers look at in The New Yorker? The cartoons. And Esquire deserves as much credit for its award-winning service journalism as for its feature stories. Sports has always lent itself to long-form, dating back to Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al stories (you might even say The Iliad), and there's a built-in male audience for it in the same way there's a built-in female audience for fashion, but fashion is a story best told in pictures. in some ways, complaining about the gender split in the nominations is like saying the men who stayed on the Titanic get more attention than the women who made it into the lifeboats.

Okay, there's truth in all that (though if magazine publishing has indeed hit an iceberg of changing business realities one could argue that it did so out of an "unsinkable" arrogance). More broadly, some of the byline gap, it should be noted, is likely due to structural problems that also hurt women in other careers. Some women take time off or dial back when they have kids, men not (yet) so much. Some steer themselves into softer and/or more "personal" forms of journalism. And yes, women who cover wars, sports, politics, tech or anything other than the "traditional" women's beats still face sexism—from sources, from editors, from readers—and usually that sexism is subtle, and sometimes that sexism comes from women.

As many, including ourselves, have written, key to solving the byline gap is to get more women in editorial positions of authority. There are more women editing magazines that feature long-form, in-depth reporting and writing than when we became EICs six years ago. But not nearly enough.

And there is the issue of women's magazines—which command an enormous number of readers; this list of the circulations of the 50 biggest magazines surprised even us—and are universally run (at least on the editorial side) by women. Here's Ellie winner and Esquire/ESPN writer Chris Jones:

Many of those titles started in a vastly different era for women. (Good Housekeeping, 1885!)  God only knows the pressures related to advertisers—or of being a profit center in the very suddenly very sinkable world of print magazine conglomerates. None of the industry's or society's problem can be laid at their feet. And yet, and yet…if the problem of byline equity is in part a pipeline problem, then what women's magazines publish, or don't, affects the opportunities available to reporters and writers. Of both genders.

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