Will Print Die? Observations From the National Magazine Awards Ceremony

© Steve Friedman 2010

Stylized copper elephant stabiles designed by Alexander Calder, they’re nicknamed “Ellies” and they’re the “Oscars” of the publishing world. At a Lincoln Center ceremony Thursday night 35 of them were presented for outstanding work in magazines. Established in 1966 when Look Magazine received the single award, the Ellies have expanded to categories, honoring essays and criticism, fiction and public interest, personal service and leisure activities and general excellence.

From merely the industry celebration honoring a single magazine, the ceremony has escalated to an evening of cocktails, red-carpet introductions and celebrity presenters, albeit on a “read” carpet scale of its own. “Who’s that?” a reporter asked about an attractive young man smiling through the barrage of flashbulbs. It was “the Editor of Garden and Gun.” A towering model in a stretchy pink frock towered over hockey-player/sometime-guest-editor Sean Avery and, although the final episode of “Project Runway” was scheduled to be broadcast within an hour, Nina Garcia refused to divulge the winner.

Hall of Fame Editor Martha Stewart opened the ceremony, presenting the first Ellie to Texas Monthly for an article about a man and his caretaker mother confined to their home. Shimmering in green sequins, countless-cover-girl Brooke Shields presented photojournalism prizes to the National Geographic’s series “Shattered Somalia” and to “Portraits of Power” in The New Yorker. New York Magazine Editor Adam Moss accepted four awards for creative approaches to practical topics from Neapolitan pizza to circumcision.

Besides picking up his customary multiple awards (three this year from ten nominations), the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, was pinch-hit presenter to Hall of Fame inductee Anna Wintour of Vogue. Explaining that her brother was grounded in London — “and even Anna can’t control the weather,” Remnick stepped in, apologizing that his own fashion sense is based on “what doesn’t itch,” and showing off a new red silk dotted tie he’d bought for the occasion.

Described as a combination of Irving Thalberg and Cleopatra, a professional who’s clear and knows what she wants, Anna joined past Hall of Fame inductees ranging from William F. Buckley to Helen Gurley Brown. Wearing a sparkly suit with her T-shirt and suit collar charmingly askew, Wintour acknowledged her mentor Alexander Lieberman and thanked the staff and professionals she works with.

General Excellence awards, presented in six categories based on circulation from under 100,000 to over two million, cited two city magazines (San Francisco and New York), two men’s magazines (GQ and Men’s Health), Mother Jones and, finally, 100-year-old National Geographic for its up-to-date mastery of graphics.

What do the citations indicate about current lifestyles? Separate titles for men and women are holding their own against general interest magazines, and “men’s” magazines are showing their softer sides with oft-nominated GQ’s “recipe for Brussels sprouts following a guide to cologne.” Even Field and Stream was nominated for a food article, “America’s Meat.” There is still a place for the substantive reporting of Foreign Policy, The Economist, The New York Times Magazine and, for smaller reviews, Technology Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Paris Review. Forward-looking design, from the edgy photo portfolios of W to the innovative graphics of Wired, point toward the future.    

The final Ellie went to Magazine of the Year. Besting The Atlantic, Fast Company, Men’s Health and New York, it was Glamour that took the prize with Editor Cynthia Leive citing the importance of her magazine’s Web component in “starting a conversation with readers which takes you into their lives.”

And clearly it is a time of transition. Outgoing ASME President David Willey assured the crowd that while continuing to deal with the future, print remains alive and well. Yet one winner mentioned the “tough last 18 months” and more than one acceptance speech thanked the business side for selling essential ads because “great reporting is expensive.” Accepting the honor for Fareed Zakaria’s foreign policy columns in Newsweek, Editor Jon Meacham stressed the importance of informed commentators in a world where anyone can go on cable or the Web. Even the very contemporary mystery issue of Wired was lauded for pages filled with puzzles to solve.

A few weeks ago the Association had already presented the first awards for Digital Media. Michael Kinsley, founding editor of the original online magazine Slate, was the first “Digital” inductee into the Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. Before last night’s ceremony he divulged his prediction that magazines will be “dead” in ten years. “Have you seen the iPad?” he challenged. “Who needs paper?”

Many of the nominated titles already combine print and Web components. This article you are reading right now was never intended for a paper page. Will print and the Web continue to co-exist? Have we an ongoing need for both? Or are magazines as we know them, like the elephants, facing the threat of extinction?

Click here for a complete list of Ellie winners.

Editor’s Note: Sharon King Hoge specializes in consumer and travel journalism both in print and on radio and television. The former Consumer Reporter at WBZ-TV and producer/host of “The Sharon King Show” in Boston, she reported on ABC network news, hosted “The Cookbook Kitchen” on the Food Channel and participated in the launch of CNBC.  A Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Global Traveler magazines, her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal,  National Review.  A former columnist for both AOL and the New York Daily News, she was Calendar Editor for the Martha Stewart Living website and is Editor at Large of the three regional Cottages and Gardens shelter magazines.

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