On the night of the magazine industry’s annual awards gala, it’s common for editors to feel spurned, slighted and resentful.
This year, editors are having their feelings hurt in advance.
On Monday, the American Society of Magazine Editors overhauled the way its biggest awards are judged, so that titles will compete on the basis of content and audience instead of by raw circulation numbers. “This is something that everybody always talks about, but nobody has ever done anything about,” said Sid Holt, ASME’s chief executive. Under the previous system, incongruent glossies like ESPN The Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens faced off in the same top category, on the premise that at least they had similar resources. Meanwhile, obvious rivals like Time and Newsweek were split up.
Now, the same number of general excellence awards will be handed out, but in six broad categories. “Magazines ought to be judged against their peers,” Mr. Holt said. “Instead of apples and oranges, we’ll get apples and apples—even if it’s large apples versus small apples.”
While the old system was disliked for its arbitrary matchups, there was something objective about grouping magazines by one simple measure. The Holt system has plenty of its own odd matchups—US Weekly and The Economist are now direct competitors—but more importantly, it has upset the way elite magazines think about themselves.
Take the new top category of news, sports and entertainment: of the 29 magazines listed, 19 of them competed in “lower” categories last year. That’s a lot of newcomers. And then there are the 16 magazines no longer listed in the first tier. Thirteen of them are women’s titles.
Where did they go? To the “fashion, service and lifestyle magazines” category, which ASME describes as honoring “women’s magazines, including health and fitness magazines and family-centric publications.” Meanwhile, the men’s category, a.k.a. active lifestyles, honors “business, finance and technology.”
Staffers at women’s magazines groused to the Observer about the implication that the genre isn’t serious. But others are glad that the likes of O and Parenting no longer have to compete against general interest magazines for recognition.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect fit,” said People managing editor Larry Hackett, ASME’s president. The intent, though, he said, is to give women’s magazines a better shot at a gen ex award, and to have them compete between themselves. “The idea was to broaden the possible winners.”
Glamour’s Cindi Leive was ASME president from 2006 to 2008. “Look, as a woman editor, it’s hard to sit in that room and not notice that some years there are barely any women editors on stage, or barely any editors of women’s magazines on stage,” she told the Observer. “If this changes that, it’s probably a good thing.” (Ms. Leive was speaking by cell phone on her way to the airport; at a conference for international Glamour editors in Paris, she will give a presentation on magazines and the iPad.)
Last year, Mr. Leive’s Glamour won a new “magazine of the year” award, ASME’s biggest; Glamour also won for general excellence in 2005, beating out The New Yorker. Now the monthly will compete against Vogue.
Publications have until Jan. 4 to appeal their classification. Mr. Holt said he expects several to do so. Will Wired‘s Chris Anderson chafe at landing in category three while Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, and even Spin bask in the light of category one? Will Texas Monthly itch to escape the “special interest” category five ghetto, with Guitar Aficionado and Time Out New York, to square off once more with New York or the new W?
“We all HATE the label,” an editor at a major monthly wrote in an email to the Observer, about being in category three. Yes, the designation probably means more nominations and awards—great for the career. But it’s not so great for the ego, if the wins come against lesser magazines. Instead of facing off against heavyweights like The New Yorker and New York, the competition in category three includes Wakeboarding Magazine. (Coming in the April 2011 issue: coverage of professional wakeboarder Rusty Malinoski, and a piece on “Babes Who Shred.”)
“It’s like being Boise State,” the monthly editor wrote. “Yeah, we’ll win a lot, but are we gonna feel awesome about beating Southwest Montana State?”
Martha Stewart Living takes an especially obvious hit, dropping from the top circulation tier to the new category four (food, travel and design); every other title in last year’s top bracket either stayed put, or moved to categories two and three. MSL now competes against the likes of Garden and Gun, instead of National Geographic. A rep for the magazine said no editors were available for comment.
One outfit that may profit from the reshuffling is Time Inc., whose titles haven’t won a general excellence Ellie in years. “There’s been a lot of frustration at Time Inc. over the lack of an ASME in the building. So any change is a welcome change,” said a source at the publishing house.
Mr. Hackett was named president of the organization in May. In early August, Mr. Holt asked a panel of editors from Redbook, Popular Science, GQ, Prevention, Yoga Journal and other titles to examine ASME’s awards program from top to bottom, with a focus on rehabbing general excellence.
It was an idea that had been gestating for some time. “Literally every time I sat down and had lunch or breakfast or a drink—especially a drink—with anybody to talk about the National Magazine Awards, this is something that always came up,” Mr. Holt said. The panel agreed. “I put together some rough new categories for the committee to take a look at, and everybody in the room said, ‘Yeah, that’s the way we ought to do it,'” Mr. Holt recalled. “I had this big fancy PowerPoint presentation on the general excellence category that I never got to give.” Some 20 different configurations were considered, but certain laws were inviolate, such as putting GQ and Esquire in the same category, and The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Mr. Holt said he was still putting the finishing touches on the names of each category the night before they were announced.
But despite all the changes, an Ellie—so named for the weird but beloved elephantine sculpture that winners get to heft during acceptance speeches—is still an Ellie.
“You should feel good about taking it home,” Mr. Holt said.