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The Industry Picks Its Best of Periodicals

April 28, 1988|JOHN GABREE

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."

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