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American Society of Magazine Editors Under Fire From Industry

The organization earned the scorn of numerous editors in chief when it shrunk the total number of National Magazine Awards categories last fall.

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PROFILES IN UMBRAGE: A noted editor was on the phone recently discussing the American Society of Magazine Editors, the industry’s main professional club, whose board is comprised of 18 rotating editors in chief from magazines as varied as Redbook and BusinessWeek.

The mention of ASME, whose most sacred duty is handing out the annual National Magazine Awards, got an eye-roll from the editor.

ASME’s board meets on a semiregular basis, brainstorms about ways to promote the industry, and tinkers with their Ellies.

“They peck around like chickens at everything until it becomes uninteresting,” the editor quipped.

Griping about ASME and its ways is a time-honored ritual in the corridors of Condé Nast and Hearst and Time Inc. Though editors kill for one of their awards, for their prestige and bragging rights, the organization that hands them out, composed of their peers, gets about as much respect as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

This time, months before this year’s nominees are revealed — the deadline for submissions was Tuesday — the organization had already earned the scorn of numerous editors in chief.

The latest flare-up has been festering since October.

ASME’s board, whose current members include Self’s Lucy Danziger (the new president), BusinessWeek’s Josh Tyrangiel and Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired, came up with a new set of rules for the awards as they shrunk the total number of categories to include both print and digital.

In the process, seven categories, most prominently profile writing, were scrapped and lumped with existing categories. The board was not expecting a push-back — it perceived the awards had become bloated at 32 categories, and that the awards ceremony is always so endless anyway.

David Granger, whose Esquire just published a bonkers profile of Megan Fox, was understandably apoplectic.

In November, he fired off an e-mail to Sid Holt, ASME’s chief executive officer, and forwarded it to other high-profile editors.

“I cannot imagine what you and the board were thinking,” Granger wrote. “See any of dozens of examples of the HUNGER for long-form magazine writing all over the Internet and all over the world: It’s not just Longform and the Atavist and Byliner — for God’s sake, Buzzfeed is now trying to assign lengthy magazine-style stories.”

In his view, profile writing deserved its own slot because it is “a more important category of magazining [sic] than any other,” Granger wrote. And besides, if trimming was necessary, there were other, less-relevant categories.

“Most readers would have no idea what you mean by public interest,” he argued, referring to another category. “This is a mistake and you need to rectify it before unalterable damage is done.”

David Remnick, Jim Nelson, and Tina Brown were just a handful of the editors who later conveyed their frustration with the board, though presumably Buzzfeed wasn’t dragged into the skirmish.

When reached this week, Nelson also invoked an awards show metaphor to explain his concern. “I think for people who care about this a lot, it feels like killing Best Actor to get five more minutes of ceremony time,” he said in an e-mail.

In killing profile writing, it seems the board failed to read its members and inadvertently picked a sacred cow.

Though introduced a relatively short time ago, in 2000, profile writing over the years became a reliable winner for a handful of titles, including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and Esquire, which has picked up three awards alone in the category in the last decade.

The decision to consolidate the awards meant that profile writing would be lumped with the much larger, and more competitive, feature writing category, lowering everyone’s chances to squeak by into the five possible nominees.

Holt, while promising to take up the issue at the board’s next meeting, argued back in a response to all members.

“In the 13 years the category has existed, only 20 magazines have been nominated and only eight have won it, three of them two or more times,” Holt wrote.

At the board’s Dec. 4 meeting, some board members argued to keep profile writing, while others voted to get rid of the category. After “a long and passionate conversation,” Holt said, the board stuck by its original call.

Yet it compromised in expanding the number of finalists in feature writing and reporting to seven, from five, and allowing magazines to nominate three instead of two entries in each category. Holt did some math and said there were 225 fewer entries but the average number of submissions per category increased by 10 percent.

“The feeling was the fewer number of categories increases the value of the awards. There are 14 Pulitzers. Twenty-five magazine awards is a sufficient number of awards to celebrate our business,” Holt told WWD.

Paraphrasing another board member, he said, “The National Magazine Awards are not T-ball.”

Granger, who was in Milan this week for the men’s shows, disagreed. “I felt strongly enough about it that I hurriedly shared my thoughts with three or four dozen editors in chief,” he wrote WWD. “The vast majority of them wrote to ASME, asking them to reverse the decision. The board met to reconsider but did not reverse. I still believe it is a mistake.”

Cue the next round of ridicule for April, when the Ellie finalists are revealed.