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Publishing Plum Goes to Newsweek : Honors: Periodical nabs the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, but the only real buzz focused on the New Yorker's Tina Brown.


NEW YORK — Overcoming publishing's obsession with the age-old qualities of beauty, health, finance and fame, Newsweek magazine on Wednesday won the 1993 National Magazine Award for General Excellence, beating out other finalists in the category for publications with one million or more circulation: Glamour, Health, Business Week and Vanity Fair.

"From its insightful coverage of the Los Angeles riots to its instant history of the '92 campaign . . . Newsweek delivers what we need to know with style and substance," the judges wrote in their citation.

A 27-year tradition, the ceremony of congratulations and catharsis at the Waldorf Astoria hotel brought together an audience of about 1,300, most of whose names appear on the mastheads of magazines big and small--from American Machinist and Automated Manufacturing to Reader's Digest.

Sponsored by the American Society of Magazine Editors, financially supported by the Magazine Publishers of America, and administered by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, the awards are presented in 11 categories.

Judging for this year's competition started in March, with a three-day marathon screening. About 130 judges--mainly editors, with a few academics thrown in--met at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and culled also-rans from a record 1,371 entries from 328 magazines.

Besides talk about Conde Nast Publications' purchase of Architectural Digest and subsequent folding on Tuesday of its sister publication HG (formerly House and Garden), the only genuine buzz preceding this relatively staid affair focused on Tina Brown.

Would Brown, who took over the New Yorker six months ago, win in the General Excellence category for magazines with circulations of 400,000 to one million, for three issues she oversaw in her first three months there? Would she win the one million and up division, for two issues she edited before leaving Vanity Fair? Or would she take both?

She got neither. (The Atlantic Monthly beat the New Yorker in the lower circulation category.) But the New Yorker did win the fiction category for stories by Alice Munro, Emily Carter and Martin Amis, and in feature writing for "Whose Art Is It?" by Jane Kramer, which explored "a recent clash of racial politics, political correctness and publicly funded art in the South Bronx."

In any case, it was less exalted editors who exhibited the most excitement at events leading up to the banquet.

Virtually the entire staff of Lingua Franca magazine gathered Tuesday at an ASME cocktail reception. A lively journal about academia, the magazine landed two finalist nominations in spite of a circulation not much bigger than some publishing conglomerates' staffs: 13,000.

"We're sort of like the Marisa Tomai entry," said one ebullient editor, comparing it to the Academy Awards' best supporting actress, before learning that her publication won the General Excellence award in its circulation division (under 100,000).

Participants do call these copper Alexander Calder-designed awards "the Oscars of the magazine industry."

The comparison, though, falls short.

Shorter speeches, lower glitz and pretentiousness levels aside--heck, these awards are passed out over a long lunch--it's the staggering diversity of the magazine medium that makes Oscar analogies irrelevant.

That's also what makes these awards interesting.

Paul Hoffman, editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, said that a perennial debate developed at the screening sessions: "How does a new publication that can only pay 10 cents a word compete with a big money publication?"

"It always comes down to judging a piece on merit," he said.

Given how surprisingly small the world of magazines is, with editors jumping from masthead to masthead, making friends and enemies and even marrying each other en route, the potential for back-scratching at judging sessions would seem high.

Judges may not participate in selections in categories in which their publication is nominated, an ASME board member said. And several judges said that they have never seen blatant politicking.

Still, there are skeptics.

In the March Washington Monthly (a past winner of the General Excellence Award), David Segal assailed journalism awards in general, from the Pulitzer to the "I Love an Ethical New York Media Awards Competition."

But the National Magazine Awards, in particular, vexed him.

The criterion for General Excellence, he said, "is marvelously elastic." That, he says, explains how back in 1987 People magazine beat out fellow finalists National Geographic and Time with a report on Frank Sinatra's lives and loves and a 10-year retrospective on Charlie's Angels.

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