Tonight the American Society of Magazine Editors will present its annual awards that recognize excellence in the various talents and skills that go into making magazines. Those who have been nominated, and those who will win -- many among them my friends and former colleagues -- well deserve this acknowledgment of their achievement. If past is prologue, much of the work that is celebrated will have appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and a few of our other eminent publications.
But while the excellence of the giants will not be gainsaid, there will be the sense that the best efforts of most of the other magazines will have gone underappreciated. At a Mediabistro function the other night, I was one of a dozen editors at a table. None of us was from a frequent ASME award-winner. Many of us had had the experience of repeatedly entering our very best work without receiving so much as a nomination. All of us seemed to share the sense that when entries for the awards are judged, the candidates from the great magazines enter the competition with an edge. Call it reputation, call it legacy, call name recognition, but their history counts: the film critic for Paducah Today could plagiarize The New Yorker's movie critic word-for-word, and he wouldn't get the same consideration.
Part of this comes from the way entries are initially judged. In an intense two-day process, scores of entries are winnowed through peer review into groups of semi-finalists. The judges take their job seriously and without obvious prejudice, but in a long and tiring process that requires judges to make choices -- to find fault with some most excellent pieces -- certain properties extraneous to the inherent value of the piece come into play. The judges aren't living out a publishing version of Twelve Angry Men; when a couple people in a group of evaluators express admiration for piece that's appeared in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, no hold out is going to stubbornly call for a close line reading of the piece from Widgets Illustrated. A critical mass forms, and the irresistible pull of gravity take hold. After all, if he likes it and she likes it and the editors of The New Yorker liked it, well, it must be good.
But there is a step that could be taken that would put all articles on an equal footing. Right now when magazines enter their pieces, they submit copies of actual published pages, which means the judges know the names of the writers and the magazines they are reading.
Why not ask the magazines to submit word documents of their entries in categories for reporting, feature writing, fiction, profiles, essays and so on?
No magazine titles, no bylines, no photos, no illustrations, no fonts, and no legacy. Just black words on white pages, double-spaced 12 point type. Take away everything but the reporting, writing, editing, logic, language and sensibility.
Obviously this wouldn't work in every category -- General Excellence, Design, Photography and other categories require the physical presentation. And in the writing categories, surely some judges would remember some of the articles and recognize some of the writers, and that may influence their assessments.
Assuredly, excellence will out. No doubt the great magazines will continue to win a significant share. And when that happens, will not the fruits of their victory be all the sweeter, knowing that won with a process that had strived to be all about the merits?