The Industry Picks Its Best of Periodicals

They may not cause the sensation of the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys or even the Tonys, but in the negligibly glamorous world of magazine publishing the National Magazine Awards are big news. They can give a new or marginal publication the same kind of lift a journeyman thespian gets when he finally receives his Best Supporting Actor award.

Intended to honor the best editorial efforts by periodicals during the previous year, the awards were established in 1966 by the Society of Magazine Editors and are conducted by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. The bills are paid by the Magazine Publishers of America, a trade association.

Like the voters in the various academies of motion picture, television, recording, and Broadway arts and sciences, however, the magazine judges are far more likely to select the familiar, the inoffensive, the conventional and the successful, than the new, the daring or the contentious.

Thus it was not surprising to see this year's selections, announced Wednesday in New York, dominated by popular logos: six nominations went to the Atlantic and three each were gathered by Esquire, Harper's, Life, Newsweek and Vanity Fair.

The 70 finalists were selected by a screening committee of 120 editors from among 1,250 entries by 292 magazines. A panel of 44 judges picked the 14 winners.

The 1988 also-rans were generally more interesting, though not in every case better, than the winners.

It is axiomatic among magazine editors, for example, that readers love lists. The best, the worst, the most, whatever. The graphs, charts, polls and studies in the monthly American Demographics, nominated for general excellence under 100,000 circulation, are enough to satisfy even the most ardent listomaniac.

Other nominations in the same category included the earnest New York Woman, trendy Spy magazine, which should have been a shoe-in given its glossy appeal, and the endlessly stimulating Utne Reader, a Reader's Digest for the hip and progressive drawn mostly the smaller presses.

The winner among the small fry, the Sciences, although the most innocuous choice, is no slouch either, presenting, as the judges put it, "a combination of unquestioned scientific authority and surprising literary flair." The Sciences succeeds in bridging the gap between scientist and layman, partly because its lavish, clever illustrations appeal to the several generations of readers whose graphics standards have been set by Madison Avenue.

The nominees for general excellence in the 100,000-to-400,000 circulation category included three established magazines that deserve to be more widely read. American Heritage, under editor Byron Dobell, has become 100 times more lively and consequential than you remember it to be. The others are two regionals, the ever-provocative Texas Monthly (the May cover has an unconscious man in a hospital bed with a hand pushing out of his chest begging for a new heart), and the astutely edited Washingtonian, about the nation's capital.

Health and Journalism

The winner, Hippocrates, is a newcomer, an engaging general interest magazine about medicine and in the words of the judges "a magazine that helps its audience enjoy good health and good journalism at the same time."

The general excellence award for publications with circulations between 400,000 and 1 million went to Fortune, which the judges stated "has evolved from a solid business publication into a lively, entertaining magazine without any loss of sophistication or authority." The other nominees were the Atlantic, the resurgent Business Week, what is offically called Conde Nast's Traveler, and what is, but is not called Conde Nast's Vanity Fair.

Parents, general excellence over 1 million, got its award "for its consistently wise, relevant and comprehensive advice to mothers and fathers who are raising children in a confusing and often turbulent world." Other nominees were Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone.

General excellence honors are the equivalent of best picture or record of the year. The 10 lesser categories, however, included some of the more intriguing awards.

The personal service award ("for articles that give practical guidance or assistance in dealing with the realities of everyday life") went to Money for December's "well-researched, well-edited and well-designed comprehensive report" entitled "After the Crash: The Safest Place to Put Your Money Now."

The October Crash also figured in Harper's award for essays and criticism for L. J. Davis's chillingly clairvoyant "The Next Panic" in the May, 1987, issue. "This prescient analysis of the fragile state of the stock market," the judges wrote, " . . . clearly and coolly elucidates six reasons why Wall Street was on the verge of panic." And again in the Atlantic's public interest award ("for articles with a demonstrable impact on an area of significant public interest") for Peter G. Peterson's "The Morning After" in October: "With rare authority, he analyzes the precarious state of America's economy . . . and offers concrete policy proposals . . . ."

Hotly Contested Award

The Atlantic won a second time in the hotly contested feature writing category ("in-depth explorations of a subject, a trend or a personality that advances the readers' knowledge, understanding and appreciation") with "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers." "A minor classic written with amazing clarity and wit," the judges noted, "Paul Hoffman's profile of a wildly eccentric and brilliant mathematician Paul Erdoes illuminates one of the most arcane subjects in the world."

News reporting ("for articles that give an account of, a description of or information about an event, a situation or a problem of contemporary interest and importance") was earned by the jointly owned Baltimore Magazine and the Washingtonian for "Life and Death on the Fast Track" by Ramsey Flynn and Steven D. Kaye, a dramatic reconstruction of the Amtrak-Conrail collision of Jan. 4, 1987, and the post-accident investigation by Congress, that ran in both magazines.

Special interest kudos (which "help readers learn more about special interests they pursue at leisure") went to the "Stop Press" column in Conde Nast's Traveler, "an innovative and audacious piece of investigative consumer journalism."

In a nod that makes you wonder if the judges slept through the revolution in magazine graphics in the 1980s, the award recognizing "the contribution . . . design has made to . . . editorial objectives and for the overall excellence of its visual presentation") went to Life where the judges found "an effective counterpoint between elegant text pieces and breathtaking photographs" and "new excitement from an old master."

The photography prize was picked up by Rolling Stone for its "dramatic 80-page portfolio of unexpected and compelling images of the world's most over-photographed celebrities" in its November 20th Anniversary issue.

The fiction award went to the Atlantic for stories by John Sayles, Richard Bausch and Ernst Havemann. The Georgia Review and the North American Review also received nominations in this category, as did Esquire and the New Yorker.

Finally, the award for a single-topic issue ("in which 50% of the editorial content is devoted to a single topic") was gathered by Life for its fall, 1987 issue, "The Constitution," in the judges' words, "a complete, sustained, gloriously researched look at our history--and ourselves."

There is an opportunity here for some smart book publisher. An annual anthology of winners would save us all from having to trek to the library for back issues.

The week after we mentioned the controlled-circulation spinoffs, Newsweek On Campus and Newsweek On Health, the Washington Post decided to close down the periodicals because of rising postage and paper costs. Although well-edited, the 1.3-million-copy college publication, which appeared six times a year, was facing stiff competition in an increasingly crowded market and the company has decided to put its energy into building the campus circulation of Newsweek itself. On Health, which distributed 500,000 copies quarterly to 250,000 doctors and dentist offices, was one of the targets of Whittle Communications Special Reports six-pack due in September. Whittle, meanwhile, announced that it, too, was reducing its college program, closing its classy Campus Voice.

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