National Magazine Awards to Really Get Jazzed About

How to Reform the Oscars of the Magazine World

By Published on .

The newspaper world has been obsessed with self-loathing and self-flagellation lately -- all these ombudspeople scurrying around making amends (and excuses), and running corrections and "clarifications" -- and sometimes I wish the magazine world would join in. Instead, glossy types have chosen to make their annual self-congratulatory orgy ... glammier.

This week is the National Magazine Awards ceremony. In the past, it's been an insufferable luncheon at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria. This year it's an evening black-tie event at the spectacular Frederick P. Rose Hall --because the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) really, really wants the awards to live up to their billing as "the Oscars of the magazine industry."

Forget the event, though. What really should get reformed are the awards themselves. To wit:

Stop awarding editors for everything. The single most moronic thing about the NMAs is that all the awards go to editors. For instance, Jane Mayer's New Yorker reportage is nominated in the "Reporting" category, but if she "wins" it, Editor in Chief David Remnick actually gets to go up on stage and accept it. Which is something akin to "Capote" director Bennett Miller getting the Best Performance by an Actor Oscar because he "assigned" the lead role to some guy named Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Get rid of the General Excellence awards. They're complete nonsense, even though ASME has attempted to address the inherent apples-and-oranges-ness of this uber-category by breaking it down by circulation. This year the "250,000 to 500,000" circ nominees are The Atlantic Monthly, Backpacker, New York Magazine, Texas Monthly and Technology Review. An insider tells me the award will likely go to New York "because the judges love a comeback story" -- and want to reward new-ish Editor in Chief Adam Moss. (Full disclosure: I've written for NYMag in the past, but I definitely haven't contributed to it being generally excellent.) So why not just give out a "Comeback of the Year" award instead of pretending that, you know, The Atlantic Monthly is in any way competitive with Backpacker, and so on?

Reward the only truly useful thing: fresh ideas. The worst thing about all the years I spent as a magazine editor was the "Groundhog Day" factor: having to do basically the same stuff over and over. (I've worked on "Best Of" issues at three different city publications -- which always had me wondering about the Best Way to Kill Myself.) Occasionally editors come up with clever new ways to present stories -- and God bless 'em for that. So instead of nominating GQ's Jim Nelson in the "leisure interests" category for Alan Richman's "The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die," why not come up with a "cleverest new execution" award? Speaking of "leisure," how absurd is it that Backpacker didn't make the cut in this category? So Backpacker is generally excellent, but it's not particularly good at leisure-interest stories?

Make some noise about who's not eligible -- and why. ASME has spun its wheels quite a bit coming up with standards for things like the minimum blatant-ness of the "special advertising section" type that must be on advertorials, but for the most part it sits on its hands when magazines engage in less subtle, completely egregious conduct. I don't expect ASME to ever really grow teeth -- i.e., censuring or disbarring colleagues in the way that doctors and lawyers do -- but it'd be useful if the group drew some more relevant lines in the sand. Like, how about something along the lines of: "Because of its shameful record of 'reporting' on one too many false celebrity pregnancies, Star is not only ineligible for NMAs this year, but shall have its 'magazine' status revoked, and will henceforth be referred to as 'a ridiculous thing printed on shiny paper."'

But back to the event:

Bring back the salmon loaf. A colleague writes, "Just heard that the NMAs this year are NO FOOD, seating arrangement like the Oscars. How suckbag is that?" The food, as mediocre as it always was, simply must come back. The passive-aggressive Waldorf wait staff, who provided the only real entertainment value, always took way too long to clear plates, thinking you weren't done yet -- when in fact you were done after the first awful bite. I'm convinced that attendees' collective fear of the salmon loaf (or whatnot) moldering away on their plates was the only thing keeping windy acceptance speeches from going on forever.

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