It Came from New York City: ASJA through the Decades, Part 1

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles on fun facts about and the history of ASJA honoring its 70th anniversary. Want to contribute ideas and memories? Please email me or to have them showcased for the 8,000-some readers of ASJA Weekly and Confidential! Another cool way to celebrate with fellow writers, editors and industry VIPS would be to attend the 70th anniversary gala on Thursday, May 17. As you will see from these entries, ASJA really knows how to throw a party!

By Sandra Gurvis

While the precise origins of ASJA are shrouded in the air pollution of time—this was 1948 and a few years before the Clean Air Acts of the 1960s—the switch from fiction to primarily nonfiction in magazines provided the impetus for what was originally called the Society of Magazine Writers (SMW) in New York City. “ASJA…was badly needed and came along at the right time,” said late co-founder Murray Teigh Bloom in an interview for Sixty Candles, an anthology of member contributions published in honor of ASJA’s 60th anniversary. “When we were together, we realized what power we had. It was a great thing.” 

The camaraderie, unity, and sense of support and of finding one’s tribe has remained unchanged throughout the decades as have, unfortunately, article rates, some of which have actually dropped. In the 1950s “Today’s Woman paid $750, ‘sometimes higher’ for a story that ‘people will talk about,’” wrote anthology editor Susan Tyler Hitchcock, in the introduction. “Nation’s Business paid $500 to $1,000 for a feature. Time paid $1,000 for a profile….” Cringe.

But we writers are a resilient, inventive lot and many members continue to earn a decent living today although then, as now, there aren’t many one-percenters. I dug deep into ASJA’s extensive (members-only) online archives to see how ASJA—and its ways of communicating with members and the writing community at large—has changed (or not) over the past 70 years.

1951: This was the first year the SMW/ASJA published a newsletter and there was only one, dated December 13. It was typewritten of course, and the first headline read: “Why a News Letter?” [sic] Prophetic answer: “To fill in for absent members and pave the way for… chapters that may someday be started by members who branch off to other cities.”  The newsletter also announced that The Society of Magazine Editors had agreed to publish its first anthology of member’s articles with Henry Holt for a not-so-whopping (in those days) advance of $1000. The newsletter was signed “Phil Gustafson, Editor for a Day,” because he and his family were going to Europe, while he took on a gig as a magazine writer for a government agency. Llewellyn Miller was to be his replacement; the upper-right hand corner bore his handwritten address in “New York, 19.” This was before six-digit zip codes and dinosaurs still roamed the earth. (I can say this because I was 11 months old at the time.) There was no mention of dues but membership stood at 22.

1958: Although still typewritten and apparently mimeographed, the newsletter had grown to monthly editions, with a yearly total page count of 114 (we are a group of writers after all). Still the SMW, their tenth anniversary party proved to be a huge success, with “more than 200 writers, spouses, editors, and PR people” at the famous Toots Shor’s, with floor entertainment including comics Elaine May and Mike Nichols “a young pair of demonic social satirists,” who went on went onto the national spotlight on Broadway and in Hollywood. Top magazines were represented: The New York Times Magazine, Parade, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek and many more. “Everyone agreed it was one of the finest… soirees of the Xmas season.”

Also unchanged was the main focus: rounding up and pinning down editors and assignments, with detailed market reports, information on writing competitions, and “Strikeovers,” news about the comings and goings or members and editors, some form of which has always been a staple of ASJA. Other concerns included getting group health insurance, taxes for freelancers, and building up the Writer’s Fund, which was in the low four figures at the time. There were 152 members and dues were $35 for those within a 200-mile radius and $20 for everyone else in flyover country. Ouch.

1968: The next decade saw a masthead jazzed up with—wait for it—a drawing of a typewriter. Still sporting old-school font, the mimeographed newsletter now had headers and detailed, specific sections for markets, awards, and so forth. Usually headlined were the monthly dinner meetings. At $6.50 for members and spouse and $7 for guests, it was still a bargain, up a mere 50 cents from the last decade. For that, you got a meal at Overseas Press Club and a chance to meet and greet big names such as Tom Wolfe and Gloria Steinem and top-tier editors at Commentary, Harper’s Magazine, and the Ladies Home Journal, to mention a few. Along with a 20th-century version of “Paycheck” listing magazine markets and rates, the Society of Magazine Writer’s Fund, which eventually became the ASJA Charitable Trust was also underway.

Other innovations: A directory listing SMW’s 230+ members, which enjoyed brisk sales, providing much of the organization’s income; an Editor-Writer Relations Committee to negotiate contract differences and other disputes; and a grants program and contest for writers, a precursor to the ASJA Annual Writing Awards. Outside grants and writing opportunities were also listed. Members enjoyed group health insurance—a lot more challenging for independent contractors to get in those days—and “a more official-looking SMW press card containing his or her photograph.” As with all the annual parties, the 20th anniversary gala was held over the holiday season—this time at the Baroque Room at the posh Plaza Hotel—and along with the usual stellar lineup of editors and entertainers, door prizes included a trip to Acapulco, use of a Rambler Javelin for a month, five shares of Houghton Mifflin stock, a case of Vat 69 scotch and a unicycle, among other things.

Something called “swap shop” offered a three-week trade for a cottage by the Thames in Oxford for an apartment in Manhattan. Is my condo in Columbus close enough?

To be continued….

After the gala, it’s a hop, skip and jumpstart your career with Navigate. Motivate. Captivate., ASJA’s annual New York conference Friday and Saturday, May 18-19. And mark your calendar for the Client Connections lottery May 2-7. You must be registered for the conference to enter the lottery.