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In addition to setting editorial standards, ASME can also work to help diversify magazine staffs in an industry that has long resisted true integration (despite notable exceptions like Lalli at Money, where, by the time he left, one out of three staffers were nonwhite). “I happen to like ASME a lot,” said George Curry, who was the association’s first black president. “I think it’s a very open-minded organization, even though the industry, in a lot of respects, is very closed. It really has a sense of fair play and I guess that’s evident in our being elected by our peers. To me, it is not surprising that I was elected or that Mark [Whitaker] would get elected, because it’s based on the merits. And that’s not like the industry.”
Though ASME has implemented programs to foster inclusion, these efforts haven’t made any significant headway. Curry, now editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Association News Service, suggests other ways that the organization can continue these efforts. “One thing I wanted to do was to recruit more at historical black colleges and not just look for black students at Columbia and Northwestern,” he said. “And to be more aggressive in introducing magazines to people of color.”
While working to diversify the industry’s human capital, ASME should also seek to open up its own insulated processes. At present, the association’s leadership seems to be self-selecting and self-perpetuating. A committee made up of the president, two sitting board members and two other ASME members handpicks potential board members, who usually serve for eight to 12 years. The same committee also nominates the organization’s officers and presents the slate to the entire membership for approval by vote, which has always been just a formality.
“In my memory there’s never been an alternate candidate,” said Lalli. “It’s a semiautomatic process. You become one of the officers and move up one rank each year, and so the heir apparent is apparent. What disturbs that from time to time is that one of the people loses their job. If you’re not an active editor, you can’t be president, so that takes you off the ladder and you have to find somebody else to step in.”
That is why, although the formal election has yet to happen, it is already known that Cindi Leive will be the next president. Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly, will follow her a year or two later, depending on whether Leive will accept a second term. Even though all of the nominees are top editors, they are prisoners of their establishment’s perspective.
Richard Landry, executive director of the Independent Press Association, which represents some 400 small-circulation periodicals, argues that this self-selecting process extends to ASME’s role as the industry’s arbiter of taste through its selections for the annual awards. “One of the great flaws, or vulnerable underbellies, of organizations like ASME,” said Landry, “is that it is simply at this level an old boys’ club, in which the content representing excellence in the [award] categories is really the content that represents excellence in a very thin layer of the magazine publishing community. If you compare the lists of finalists in the last 10 years, the number of new entrants into the space would be very minor.
“The membership of the MPA,” he continued, “doesn’t represent even a small percentage of the creativity that’s happening in media today, including print media. And it would behoove both those organizations, MPA and ASME, to become a lot more aware of the creative lifeblood that is stirring in smaller niche media, because that’s where new ideas come from.”
Even though the offbeat Virginia Quarterly Review received six National Magazine Award nominations this year, Landry does have a point. He says that ASME could learn from the Utne Independent Press Awards, where a “more nuanced and complete picture” of the magazine community is represented. As examples, he mentioned Clamor, Giant Robot and URB, which have been producing outstanding work that so far has gone unrecognized because of ASME’s limited view of editorial excellence.
Understandably, Cindi Leive is reluctant to speak now, in advance of her presumed election, about plans she might have for reshaping the organization. But considering the challenges she will encounter, she might want to pay some attention to Landry’s observations. She could invite him and the board of the Independent Press Association for a tête-à-tête to discuss how ASME could be more open to the needs of smaller publishers. She could employ Curry’s help in invigorating the minority-recruitment program.
And she had better watch her back, if she hopes to escape the ASME kiss of death.
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