When it comes to WHAT editors are looking for, few can articulate their literary magazine's needs beyond, "the best we receive" or "read the magazine to get an idea of our tastes". The former, of course, is no help because it is subjective. The latter, for most literary magazines, actually doesn't help as much as you would think.
But some editors DO know. There are magazines with pet peeves listed and even things sought-after; these insights are special and should be treated as such due to their rarity. Other editors, however, won't say what they look for because admitting it could mean negative feedback.
The top two things editors of literary magazines won't admit giving preference to are high-tier publication credits and MFA degrees. Editors don't want to be seen as biased but, for some, the absence of those two things are strikes on a writer BEFORE the story or poems are even glanced at. In a profession constantly talking about "the work being what matters", it is a huge blow.
Searching for an MFA degree is also (technically) classist because many writers can't afford the time and tuition it takes to obtain one, thus ensuring a pool of writers who are (mostly) not lower-class.
I would like to know which editors count certain things against me. I would send my poems elsewhere and leave that particular publication to those who have a better chance. But no one will own up to it (unless it is to another editor or at a conference).
The sad part is, most writers are too busy or tired to care that no one readily outs themselves. Meanwhile, all of us lowly writers who dropped out of college (or never went) and who have yet to crack a large market keep sending out our work with crossed fingers, hoping for a fair playing field in a business where equality on the page is a hit-or-miss proposition.
Have you went up against a difficult publisher or editor? Do you think it's fair for an editor to want MFA grads as contributors over others? If so, why?