By: Lisa Granatstein
(Mediaweek.com) Against the backdrop of this week’s National Magazine Awards, an annual tribal rite that celebrates editorial excellence, a long-running debate over just what constitutes a magazine is gaining new momentum.
For years, Sunday newspaper magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, Advance Publications’ Parade and Gannett’s USA Weekend have sought recognition from their glossy peers as bona fide magazines, not newspaper supplements. The American Society of Magazine Editors, however, has remained steadfast in its position to exclude them from membership and from the magazine awards process, administered by ASME.
But now a movement is building to address the issue, and some changes may be on the way. Spurred on by editors of The New York Times Magazine, ASME board members recently polled screeners for the National Magazine Awards about broadening the definition of a magazine to include the Sunday titles.
“We’re going to look into it for next year,” said Family Circle Editor in Chief Susan Ungaro, who this week becomes ASME president (succeeding Cyndi Stivers, Time Out New York president/editor in chief.) “It will definitely be given consideration.” A board discussion on the matter could take place as early as June.
The Times “would very much like to be considered for a National Magazine Award,” said a Times rep. “[It] is one of the most prominent general-interest magazines in the country.”
The argument against classifying newspaper magazines as “magazines” has always been that “people don’t buy them independent of the newspaper,” explained Stephen Shepard, BusinessWeek editor in chief and a former ASME president. “They are not sold or offered separately on the newsstand, or via subscription.” As a result, the argument goes, magazine editors face a much different-some would say more difficult-set of tasks.
“Although I’m not selling USA Weekend per se … we do have the same commercial restraints in terms of creating copy that is dynamic, challenging and inviting in a highly advertising-driven environment,” said Jack Curry, editor of USA Weekend, which has a weekly circulation of 23.6 million and is carried in more than 580 newspapers, according to the publisher’s figures. “Yeah, newspapers and magazines are different, but we are producing magazines.”
Many magazine editors are also quick to point out that Sunday magazines are eligible for another high-profile awards process, the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1992, then New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Howell Raines (now executive editor) won a Pulitzer for an article published in the paper’s magazine — which by definition makes The New York Times Magazine a newspaper, Shepard insists. “How can you be a newspaper and a magazine?” he asked. In fact, the National Magazine Awards were created in 1966 in part because of magazine journalism’s exclusion from the Pulitzers.
The inclusion of Sunday magazines will be an uphill battle. ASME screeners who were approached about the issue were said to be uncomfortable with the idea, as are many other editors. “If newspaper magazines are eligible for National Magazine Awards, I would expect to see The New York Times lobbying for magazines to be eligible for Pulitzers,” noted John Huey, Time Inc. editorial director.
Seymour Topping, the outgoing administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and a longtime top editor at The New York Times, said magazine editors should not hold their breath. “There has been no consideration [to include magazines], and I haven’t heard any discussion in my nine years as administrator,” Topping said.
Any change in ASME’s bylaws would require a majority vote by ASME members, which seems unlikely. But there is some precedent for change: In 1998, ASME opened the National Magazine Awards to magazine Web sites; the following year, the process was further expanded to include any Web site that creates a “magazine environment,” which made room for sites such as Slate and Salon.
“It seems like we’re a magazine,” says Glenn Frankel, editor of The Washington Post Magazine. “I see the [NMAs finalist] list every year and say, ‘Gee, tell me again why we don’t qualify for this?’ … If it looks like a magazine, talks like a magazine, and walks like a magazine, it’s probably a magazine.”