Sale of Ebony and Jet Raises Questions About the Viability of Black Media in the Digital Age
If the sale of Ebony and Jet to someone most media watchers have never heard of felt like a wedding that introduces a stranger into the family, then the sale of the Grio around the same time in June felt like a family member returning home after having strayed afield for a while.
Ebony and Jet, the pride of John and Eunice Johnson when they built Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) into the largest Black-owned publishing establishment in the U.S., was also the pride of millions of Black Americans as we brought the magazines into our homes, barbershops, beauty parlors and other places of business. They were a cherished part of the family – at least until about the last decade when other suitors stole our attention and magazine circulation plummeted.
Ebony and Jet are, in the parlance of the industry, old media. The Grio, on the other hand, has been a bellwether of new media since its inception in 2009. This new kid was so brash as to leave the confines of Black-owned media and ally itself with NBCUniversal. As the mother company was taken over by Comcast, the Grio became a kind of inconvenient stepchild. And so its founders reacquired it in 2014. After casting about for ways to yet again expand its horizon, they settled on a kinsman in black entrepreneurship: Byron Allen. The former comedian has been quietly laughing all the way to the bank as one of the largest producers and distributors of first-run syndicated television programming for broadcast and television stations and owner of seven 24-hour HD cable television networks. Allen and his Entertainment Studios welcomed the Grio, its founders and their vision exactly seven years after its original launch.
Both Johnson Publishing and the Grio are, of course, adjusting to what the Pew Research Center in its latest report on the state of news media has characterized as “tectonic shifts.” Those same industry changes are driving the traditional black press to step up its game. Lest anyone forget, there are more than 200 black-owned, mostly weekly, local newspapers stretching from coast to coast and struggling mightily to find their way in the 21st century when many of them have not made it into the late 20th in terms of vision and technology.
Leaders of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the trade association representing most of these black
publications, have especially singled out Facebook as a threat to community-oriented newspapers. In a jointly-peinned statement, the chair, Denise Rolark Barnes, and the president, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, have said: “Online hubs like Facebook are able to engineer which stories catch on. And they’re able to decide by algorithmic fiat, which bylines, viewpoints and subject matter is promoted to the masses. This is a new kind of power. It is unlike any power a media company has ever had before…. With so much power in the hands of one company, we risk surrendering our own decisions about what is or isn’t newsworthy to a gatekeeper who may someday push only stories it deems worthy.”
They are far from alone in their concern. Pew’s report observed: “In the pre-digital era, journalism organizations largely controlled the news products and services from beginning to end, including original reporting; writing and production; packaging and delivery; audience experience; and editorial selection. Over time, technology companies like Facebook and Apple have become an integral, if not dominant player in most of these arenas, supplanting the choices and aims of news outlets with their own choices and goals.”
All Black-focused media companies are grappling with this. As far as news is concerned, the current landscape includes numerous digital-only web sites; about a dozen black-owned television stations – six controlled by Armstrong Williams, the entrepreneur, commentator and business manager of erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson – radio giants American Urban Radio Networks and Radio One; and the cable networks Black Entertainment Television (BET) and TV One.
Beyond the head-spinning developments in the industry, Black media are feeling the impact of both Black Lives Matter as a burgeoning movement that rivals any crusade ever led by the Black press of old, and Black Twitter, a loose network of so-called “hashtag activists” whose relentless commentary and calls to action have wielded influence on everything from coverage of the Trayvon Martin case to Hollywood’s racism to presidential politics – and with an immediacy that leaves traditional Black media in the dust.
In various ways, whether Black or Blackish, they find themselves determining how to occupy the digital space, how to turn a profit and how to live up to expectations that they will contribute to the advancement of Black people by carrying on the mission of the 19th century founders of the Black press to “plead our own cause.”
But who are “we” and is there still a commonly-held notion of “our own cause”?
As Dr. Clint C. Wilson notes in his 2014 book, Whither the Black Press? Glorious Past, Uncertain Future, the cohesive communities to which Blacks were confined by law, tradition and policies like redlining no longer exist. Blacks are widely scattered beyond central cities into suburbs and exurbs. There is more pronounced stratification by education and economics; and different priorities based on national origin.
Dr. Wilson, in an interview with the Morgan Global Journalism Review, suggests: “Maybe when we start talking about ‘pleading our cause,’ we may have to think less about race per se and more about socioeconomic levels because there is certainly a cause to be pled. Somehow that needs to be harnessed in a meaningful way through media….We may have to rethink what the cause is that’s common to all these folks.” That could mean, he says, expanding audience reach to Latino communities.
These journalistic ruminations make developments at both The Root and the Grio especially intriguing. One has become part of a media company originally designed to serve a Latino audience; the other has, with some sense of betrayal, turned away from a media company that apparently had no particular interest in serving minority audiences of any kind.
The Root has never been black-owned. It was founded in 2008 by Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Gates envisioned The Root as a direct descendant of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in the U.S. Its initial contributors were described by the Los Angeles Times as “university professors, established journalists or think-tankers.”[Sarno] After the Washington Post was sold in 2013, other properties, including The Root, were retained by Graham Holdings. Then came Univision Communications Inc (UCI), which bills itself as the leading media company serving Hispanic America and is owned by a consortium of private equity groups. Expanding beyond a primarily Spanish-speaking audience, UCI purchased the Root in May 2015 and, more recently, Gawker Media, a media company built around a blog network that was forced into bankruptcy after it lost a lawsuit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan. UCI has also invested heavily in The Onion, a comedy news site. At the time of The Root purchase, Isaac Lee, Univision’s president for news and digital, said: “This game-changing union strengthens our ability to fulfill our shared missions of informing and empowering our communities.”
Danielle Belton, the former blogger (The Black Snob) who is now managing editor, says the relationship has been “vibrant and beneficial.” The impact of an infusion of resources is unmistakable. This year, for example, The Root sent its political editor to both the Republican and the Democratic national conventions. It has ramped up its video production and social media presence so that now, with short turnaround, The Root can reach an audience of thousands via Facebook – including its “live” feature – Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The Root regularly works with Fusion, the Univision network that focuses on pop culture, satire and news. The two often share content via social media.
“Univision has been an extremely supportive partner. They have given us the ability to grow and experiment and try new things and create,” Belton says.
David A. Wilson, co-founder of the Grio, was similarly dazzled in the earliest days of his relationship with one of the largest media companies in the world. He had been convinced that NBCUniversal “had our back.”
“That turned out to be a lot less of the case,” he said in a candid interview with the Review. “For them, I thought that we were going to be more of a business than a diversity initiative, and it turned out to be the other way around.”
At the start the Grio gained high visibility on network programs like The Today Show and on MSNBC. “We picked up a lot of stories that they wouldn’t have otherwise. There was real editorial and journalistic value in the Grio being a part of NBC,” Wilson says. But gradually its luster began to wear off. It had been brought into the NBCUniversal fold during the time that
Comcast was trying to acquire the media conglomerate, a move that triggered all manner of scrutiny from those opposed in principle to mega-mergers in the telecommunications sector and those particularly concerned about the lack of opportunities for minorities. As Wilson saw it, “NBC wanted to make sure that when it came to diversity that all the boxes were checked – and I think we represented that.” Eventually, however, as the Grio expected NBC’s wholehearted support to position it as the largest digital media presence aimed at African Americans, NBC executives let it be known that they were rather clueless about how to reach that audience. As Wilson put it, “They were not competent enough to sell to Black folks.” With Comcast firmly in control by 2013 and shedding itself of nonessential enterprises, Wilson and his media partner, Dan Woolsey, saw an opportunity to reacquire the Grio. They sealed the deal in September 2014.
“My experience is that traditional and large media corporations are not good stewards of black media,” Wilson now says. “They don’t care; they don’t get it; and, frankly, they don’t see the need for it. Some of them feel like it cannibalizes their business.”
After Wilson and Woolsey, “hit some speed bumps,” they sought a buyer; and in Allen, Wilson says, the Grio found someone who understands its value in the current media landscape. “It’s important to have black-owned media and someone with the resources to back it.”
Wilson has more recently reached a conclusion that has always been the alpha and omega for Dr. Chavis of the NNPA. His position is that to be credible, and most importantly, accountable, media for Blacks must be owned by them. “One of the
reasons why the AA print press survives is because we are trusted,” he explains. “We have become the papers of record for Black achievement. The mainstream papers have become the agency of record of tragedy, the negative, the despondency. That’s what distinguishes Black-owned newspapers from others.”
But Dr. Wilson of Howard insists that most of those newspapers are in precarious positions in a 24/7 news cycle fueled by social media. “Black newspapers are not competitive there,” he says. “I mean, the story will have advanced itself 10 times over before the next issue of the Black weekly comes out.”
Chavis, as steward of what is generally meant by “the Black press,” nevertheless paints a rosy picture that does not fully acknowledge the financial and technological difficulties many newspapers are facing. Retrenchment at the NNPA’s own Washington headquarters in October 2015 led to the departure of the late George E. Curry as editor-in-chief of its news service. The board had abruptly slashed salaries in half because of what Barnes, the chair, told Richard Prince’s Journal-isms was “a decline in revenue and sponsorships prompted by competition from the digital world.”
Now Dr. Chavis, abiding by his own mantra that “you need to innovate or you die,” says the NNPA will soon launch a global digital news network that will aggregate content from the 209 newspapers in the U.S., as well as partners in the Caribbean and Africa. Where the newspapers now reach about 20 million per week in this country, he said, the new NNPA Digital will reach 45 million people on an hourly basis “with news that impacts the quality of life for not just about blacks in America but blacks all over the world.” He is not deterred by the failure of past efforts to pull reluctant publishers into the digital era, one notably led more than a decade ago by Dr. Wilson and Ben Jealous, who was chief executive of the NNPA before he moved on to lead a turnaround of the NAACP. Chavis insists that all 209 publishers are behind the new initiative, which he said will debut before year’s end. Another reason for his confidence is the anticipated infusion of talented Black journalists – impassioned and impatient – who have lost jobs as mainstream media, especially newspapers and magazines, continue to downsize. Some, he said, will help breath new life into ailing newspapers; others will create new vehicles.
He is as optimistic about black newspapers as he is about The Root, which he says has positioned itself “in the center of innovation” through its relationship with UCI. The Root is going to stay alive because it’s innovating. The NNPA is going to stay alive because we’re innovating.”
That, not surprisingly, is what Michael Gibson is also promising. Michael Gibson? He and his business partner, Willard Jackson, are the owners of Clear View Group LLC, which purchased Ebony and Jet in June. He told the Review that their private equity company, owned equally by the two men, was formed in Austin, Texas, in 2015 with the motto, “We Advance Community By Developing Businesses.”
The purchase of the magazines, Clear View’s first foray into the media business, has also brought unwelcomed litigation: A Connecticut-based company, Clearview Capital, is suing the Gibson-Jackson firm in federal court for infringing on its trademark by also calling itself “Clear View.” Though a number of media watchers are confused about who the new owners of Ebony and Jet are and what their intentions aremight be, Gibson, who concedes that they might have to change their company name, insists: “We are 100% African American and African American-owned.” They were drawn to the iconic status of Ebony and Jet as “an authentic voice in our community,” he says, and intend to work with its current management to lead it into the future with a new publishing entity, Ebony Media Operations. The old JPC retains its cosmetics line, as well as a photographic archives that it has been trying to sell for several years. Cheryl McKissack, the chief operating officer at Johnson Publishing since 2013, will now be CEO of Ebony Media, and Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of John and Eunice, who had been JPC’s chairman, will now be chairman emeritus of Ebony Media’s board.
Following their business plan, Gibson says, by next year – the 190th anniversary of Black-owned media in the U.S. – the Ebony brand will once again be as dominant in the new order of things as it was once upon a time when Johnson Publishing was without peer.
E.R. Shipp is an associate professor and journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.