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The sad state of journalism

I followed a link from a Jay Rosen tweet to this article in The Awl about the 2012 American Society of Magazine Editor (ASME) awards. This year, there were 25 awards and all 25 of them went to male magazine writers. There were *some* female nominees but they were vastly outnumbered by male nominees and there’s a good reason for that. Female writers don’t get the spotlight on prestigious magazines and they don’t get the plum assignments for long form journalism:

ASME doesn’t make its submissions public. They did, however, provide a glimpse into some data on what was submitted in the category of Profile Writing, one of the contested categories. Of the 86 submissions, 59 were written or co-written by men—which means 68.6 percent of submitted stories had a male author. (Thirty-six were written or co-written by women.) There was also a big imbalance in subject matter—the number of articles about men outnumbered those with female subjects by nearly a 2:1 ratio.

And for the nominations, of all given to individuals (not magazines), there were only 12 women writers out of 49 stories nominated. (One piece did not have a byline.)

One plausible explanation for this lopsidedness is that there are fewer women writing long-form journalism in general, particularly at those publications that tend to get nominated for National Magazine Awards. At the New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The Atlantic, for instance, less than thirty percent of the stories published in 2011 were written by women, according to this year’s VIDA Count, which did a gender breakdown of bylines in each magazine.

“The thing about the National Magazine awards is that the byline gap’s symptomatic of the overall problem in assigning to women,” said Ann Friedman, the executive editor of GOOD magazine. “It just sort of nicely forces a conversation that we should be having anyway.”

Magazines with mostly male editors often have more male writers in their networks, a factor that influences how many editors assign pieces. And women who write long-form pieces for the most prestigious magazines can have a hard time getting editors to connect with certain topics.

“I think that on an idea level, being a woman does work against you,” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award winner. “Because what you’re interested in is not what your editors are necessarily interested in. Right? They’re baby boomers living in Manhattan. They’re interested in something different.”

The above excerpt comes pretty close to the truth, I think. There are additional theories that what women write about in women’s magazines isn’t generally of interest to the general public, and women’s magazines don’t write long form journalism. These both ring true to me. I’m not interested in reading “ladies” topics. One of the articles that was slighted was about why more women are choosing to remain single. I think I might have even read that one but it didn’t leave a deep impression on me. I think the editors that cited this are looking at the problem with the wrong perspective. If they want to reward some women for writing topics of interest to women in a ragmag like Cosmo or Glamour, it’s easy enough to create a category for this. My fear is that as soon as its created, some editor will recommend a male writer to write for it.

I think there is a basic misunderstanding about what women want to write about. I doubt that women who want to write for well known journals are planning to write about things that only appeal to women, like some slightly more serious version of Carrie Bradshaw articles. It’s a little offensive to me to even suggest that. Women who read The Atlantic are reading it for the same reasons that male readers do.

No, what I want to read are articles on current issues of a broad general nature that are written by women. For example, Rachel Maddow’s book, Drift, could have made several great long form pieces. The same goes for Karen Ho’s book on Wall Street culture. That book beats anything I have read that was written by a male on the subject. It would make an excellent series of long form articles. Michelle Goldberg at Salon has written some award worthy articles on the dominionist movement in the US. How those articles got overlooked by ASME is a mystery to me.

Women are quite capable of writing substantial, analytical articles on current issues. That’s what I like to read. I want them to be able to compete in the same marketplace as their male colleagues and they CAN do it. I want them to get the respect they deserve for tackling tough topics with insight and brilliance and in a style that is interesting to read. So why aren’t there more female nominees?

My theory is that when push comes to shove, editors who have power and influence do not mentor women. Karen Ho, the anthropologist might have something to say about this. It may be due to the infiltration or extension of the ‘culture of smartness’. Take The Atlantic, for example. As the article above noted, less than 30% of the articles in The Atlantic are written by women. And how the hell did Matt Yglesias get a spot at Slate writing about the Mommy Wars? Jeez, it’s almost like he’s phoning it in. Why isn’t Melissa McKewn writing more biting commentary at Slate about what it’s like to be a feminist in this political environment? Was it his Ivy League degree? Connections? Sometimes, I get the feeling that journals are running a welfare program for males of a certain socioeconomic group. ‘Front Office’ positions are frequently occupied by males with pedigree or connections. How about Ezra Klein? Matt Taibbi? Ta-Nehesi Coates? Kevin Drum? These are the next generation of writers who are being mentored to be the opinion makers of the future and there are very few women among them. Women don’t get regular gigs at magazines. Maybe that’s why so many of them end up writing books. If they don’t publish in book format, the body of their work never sees the light of day.

And think of all of the really superb female bloggers who don’t get the opportunities that Kevin Drum or Ezra Klein have had dropped into their laps. Why is Digby only now getting to write occasionally for Al Jazeera? And in 2008, the best political blogger in long form was a mysterious woman from San Diego named Anglachel. Her posts on the Obama phenomenon and analysis of the history of the Democratic party were sheer genius. This was a female blogger whose mind was like a well tuned performance engine. She was very well informed and had a level of expertise in political science that easily bested most A list male bloggers. Her privacy might have had something to do with her not making the big time but how many people knew she even existed? How many people were too busy praising the milquetoast drivel of Kevin Drum? Good female commentary can bring a unique quality to journalism. The best female bloggers see an issue from a more holistic point of view. They make connections men tend to overlook and their posts are rich in metaphor.

Getting nominated for an ASME is directly proportional to getting the opportunity to write long form journalism at a magazine. If women are never considered as potential employees and protégées, they’ll never get those opportunities. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking why no one will read what women will write. Maybe we should be asking why they don’t get the assignments that would showcase their talents as writers, not just women writers.

They’re out there if only editors would bother to find them.

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