The Ellies Long March Back to Normalcy

National Magazine Award judging once served as a de facto annual convention for editors. Though this year’s finalists were selected virtually, the winners will be presented (fingers crossed) in person.

Adi Ignatius, the editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review, doesn’t want you to know which National Magazine Award category he led the judging for. “If you said I was judging leader in one of the General Excellence categories, that would be fine. I guess I’d really like you to not say which category,” he told The Fine Print. “I think people avoid it because they don’t want people to know what category they’re in and then be pressured or asked for an early, ‘Did my magazine — are we going to be a finalist or not?’ I’ve worked with editors who just could not stand the uncertainty and would work the phones and figure out who’s who and just, ‘Goddamnit, I need to figure out beforehand whether we’re a winner or not.’” He was speaking just before noon on Thursday, and the finalists for this year’s awards were scheduled to be announced at 3 p.m. Ignatius wanted to be clear: he was on vacation. He wasn’t one of these obsessive, impatient editors. “I have no idea if Harvard Business Review — if we’re going to get a nomination or not,” he said. “It’s soon, right?”

When the hour struck, the American Society of Magazine Editors’s account began tweeting out the finalists in each of the 16 categories. In all, 224 publications had entered and 65 received nominations. New York was a finalist in eight categories, more than any other publication. The Athletic, Grist, High Country News, and The Nation each received their first-ever nominations in the General Excellence categories. For The Athletic and Insider, this was the first year their work was among the finalists. Articles by Lindsey B. King, an editor at the Denver city magazine 5280, were finalists in both the Lifestyle and Service Journalism categories. A story that New York Times Styles editor Stella Bugbee wrote while at New York was a finalist in the Lifestyle category. And an article by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earned AARP one of its two nominations.

Ignatius was one of the more than 200 judges who met in category-specific Zoom rooms — roughly a dozen judges and one judging leader per category — on January 10 and 14. While winners won’t be announced until the awards ceremony on April 5, they were also selected last month. “The judges in each category select five finalists, then rank them,” said Sid Holt, the former managing editor of Rolling Stone and editor-in-chief of Adweek who has headed ASME since 2008. “The winner is, of course, the first finalist. The selection of finalists and winners is then submitted to the National Magazine Awards Board for approval. The board met last Thursday, also by Zoom, to review the finalists and winners in all 16 categories.”

Before the pandemic, the judges would gather for two intensive days in Pulitzer Hall, the building at Columbia University that houses its journalism school. “It’s like a jury, 12 good men and true, as they used to say,” Holt said. Not everybody’s jury references are so uncomplicated. “We get together physically, sort of like 12 Angry Men, in a room,” Ignatius said. “I hope it’s not like 12 Angry Men,” said Holt. “I’ve been in groups where people really dug in on their particular opinion, whether article A was better than article B,” Ignatius explained. “That’s great, we all have opinions, but it got sort of weirdly personal. That didn’t happen this year.”

This year and last year, the judges weren’t locked in a room together. They did their judging online. Holt had hoped to host the first day of judging in person. “We originally had planned to do it hybrid, where we would have one day at Columbia, and one day virtual, but first delta, and then omicron hit,” he said. “Because of the protocols at Columbia, they just couldn’t host this. So, we were going to do a conference center.” But with the surge looming and about a quarter of the judges traveling from out of town, they decided to cancel the in-person format in November. “Honestly, we wanted to tell people ahead of time so that they wouldn’t make plans to travel, and we didn’t want to spend the money on a conference center that we were then promptly going to cancel,” Holt said.

By heading online, the ASME judging ritual has lost one of its essential elements. “We’re not only distributing hardware, it’s an editorial conference,” Holt said. “People really wanted to get together, and it was a really difficult decision to make,” he said. “One of the reasons why people love the judging so much is that there’s an opportunity to sit in a room with colleagues from across the country who work on a lot of different kinds of magazines and just talk about some of the best magazine journalism of the year.”

Editors would have lunch with far-flung colleagues, assemble for drinks, and head off for dinners. Typically, at the end of the first day of judging, ASME would host a cocktail party at Faculty House. “In recent years at Columbia, in some fancy hall, there’d be drinks,” Ignatius said. But the glimmers of a festival atmosphere would be extinguished the next day. “The second day, people were trying to get done as efficiently as possible and catch planes and trains,” Ignatius said. “So there was certainly no organized social stuff. I think it was just drinks after the first night. And then people were on their own for dinner.”

There has been one positive innovation that’s come out of the judges’ digital exile. Whereas in deference to the traveling editors, the in-person judging was traditionally held on consecutive days, forcing judges to speed through the finalists they hadn’t yet reviewed on the first night before voting on the second day, the move to remote deliberations has allowed the organizers to space out meetings. “We added these extra days in between, which gives the judges an opportunity to spend more time with the potential finalists,” Holt said. He doesn’t plan on giving up this benefit even when they can go back to fearlessly hosting the judging in person. “Next year, our plan is to do one day in person at Columbia, and then take a few days, and then reconvene on Zoom. It could change, but that’s our plan at this point,” he said. “We think that it’ll improve the experience and the quality of the judging.”

The other big change is a new strictness about spreading the finalist slots among publications. “There was a push, and it wasn’t secretive, it was overt, to, in any category, not have more than one finalist from any given publication. Like for feature writing, to avoid a situation where there’d be three New Yorker finalists or something,” Ignatius said. “The general feeling is you don’t want to play God and don’t really want to look at who won last year, or who’s never won, to play those games. The quality of the submissions should just stand for themselves, even if it yields a result that might not be ideal in terms of diversity or variability. But on this one, there was a little bit of a finger on the scale to not have more than one finalist for any given publication, just so there’s more variety.” The push came right from the top. “We have a tradition of trying to recognize a broad range of publications. If there’s five nominees in a category, we traditionally ask the judges to nominate five different magazines, five different titles,” Holt said. “This year, we were a little bit more, shall we say, aggressive in asking the judges to do that. I wouldn’t say it was a dramatic change from the past, but we were more insistent, let’s put it that way.”

Holt is optimistic that at least one aspect of the National Magazine Awards will successfully revert to an approximation of its pre-pandemic mode very soon. “In 2020, we were planning to have the awards presentation in New York, the way that we always do. In fact, up until the weekend before the show, I was saying we’re going to have the presentation unless Broadway closes. The show was supposed to be on Thursday, and on Monday it just became evident that the last thing we wanted to do was have a potential super spreader event,” he said. “It was supposed to start at 5:30 and at six o’clock on Thursday, Broadway shut down.” So they pulled together a virtual show in 2020 and repeated the feat in 2021. Now, though, ASME’s booked Brooklyn Steel. “This year,” Holt said hopefully, “we’re all set to have a live awards presentation on April 5.”