A Few More Thoughts on the “Byline Gap”

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Prompted by an interesting email exchange, I thought I’d wade back into this whole “byline gap” issue once more. In my previous post, I wrote that the absence of women among this year’s nominees for National Magazine Awards in many of the long-form categories “can perhaps be explained in part by the dearth of female bylines in the sort of magazines that publish long-form narrative journalism.”

Quick recap: My point was that the larger problem is caused in part by the lack of female editors at men’s magazines, which publish this sort of journalism–whereas the mastheads of women’s magazines, which do not publish this sort of journalism, are staffed largely by women. So the people who might be more inclined to seek out female journalists for meaty narratives (women editors) are working at the publications where meaty narratives simply aren’t part of the mix (women’s magazines).

I am by no means the only person to have made that point. In an exchange with Sid Holt, ASME’s chief executive, earlier this week, Mother Jones co-editors-in-chief Clara Jeffery and Monika Baeurlein raised an important question: Why does it have to be this way?

Why is it that (most) men’s magazines consider ambitious reporting and storytelling to be essential to their brands, and women’s magazines don’t? Every woman we’ve ever met—including all the smart and wonderful women’s magazine editors we’ve met through ASME—wishes it were otherwise.

And Holt replied that it’s partially a question of catering to the masses.

The reason long-form journalism doesn’t have a place in women’s magazines is that the audiences are too big—it’s the same reason multiplexes show “The Hunger Games” and not “Bully.” The magazines that do publish it get away with it because their business models are different—which is another way of saying their circs are smaller.

I see his point, to some degree. Then again, newsstand sales of Vanity Fair (323,946) are barely lower than those of Seventeen (324,741), Good Housekeeping (325,351), or Vogue (348,850). And Vanity Fair is no stranger to the ASME awards. I think it’s more to do with women’s magazines’ historic missions, which, let’s face it, had nothing to do with “ambitious reporting and storytelling.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean women’s mags can’t try to bring big journalism into their mix. Women clearly want to read these sorts of stories, and I highly doubt newsstand sales of Glamour or Elle would drop if they included at least the occasional incisive 4,000-word article.

A reader of my previous post, Jessica Langlois, wondered whether many of the magazines that publish long-form journalism have more female readers than male. I didn’t know the answer, but have since learned, thanks to another reader who didn’t want to comment publicly: They do.

Among the magazines nominated in the National Magazine Awards Reporting category, the readers do skew female: The Atlantic is the only publication on the list where women make up less than half the readers, at 41 percent. Women make up 53 percent of readers at Los Angeles magazine; 51 percent at The New Yorker, and 77 percent at Vanity Fair.

So I ask again: Why does it have to be this way? If women want to read big stories just as much as men do (which clearly we do), and if there’s no lack of top-notch female journalists to pen these pieces, then what can we do to close the byline gap?

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