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Ebony’s Still Here

New owner lays out plans after fears are raised about the viability of the iconic magazine

A recent popular issue of the magazine that's been around since 1945

A recent popular issue of the magazine that's been around since 1945

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Michael Gibson, who with his partner Willard Jackson purchased Ebony and its online stablemate, Jet, in 2016, insists that the monthly magazine that has been black America’s chronicle for 72 years “will always be a part of our family” despite a rocky few years and a rash of negative publicity.

“Ebony is going to be focused on the traditional clients, whereas Jet will be focused on millennials,” the chairman of Ebony Media Operations LLC said in an exclusive interview with the Morgan Global Journalism Review.

That doesn’t allay the concerns of Johnson Publishing veterans like the author A. Peter Bailey, who started in the mailroom in the 1960s and rose to the position of associate editor by the time he left in 1976. “It just pains me, having been on Ebony’s staff, to see what is happening to those two magazines – and less than 20 years after Mr. Johnson’s death. It is sad. It is sad.” John H. Johnson, who founded the magazine in 1945, died in 2005.

The status of Ebony matters so much because, as Black Enterprise has said, it “curates the African American experience–past, present, and future.” So, consider these recent headlines:

 

  • May 5 “Ebony cuts a third of its staff, moving editorial operations to LA” (Chicago Tribune)
  • May 7 “Desiree Rogers to Leave Johnson Publishing Co. Along with Most of Ebony’s Masthead” (Journal-isms)
  • May 7 “Linda Johnson Rice takes back control of JPC, denies company has plans to leave Chicago” (Target Market News)
  • May 8 “As Johnson Publishing declines, Chicago loses a link to its past” (Crain’s Chicago Business)
  • July 13 “NABJ gives ‘Thumbs Down Awards’ to Fox News and Ebony Magazine” (The Grio)
  • July 17 “Writers Launch #EbonyOwes Twitter Campaign In Demand For Back Pay” (National Public Radio)

 

Bad Press Gets Worse

Since the spring Roland Martin has devoted time on his News One Now show and on Facebook to what he calls “huge, huge issues facing a venerable magazine.” Richard Prince, in his widely-read Journal-isms column, has tried to keep up with the topsy-turvy “who’s on first?” situation. By July, the National Writers Union was threatening to sue Ebony Media on behalf of 50 freelance writers who it said were owed as much as $200,000.

The cruelest cut of all may have come when the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) weighed in, calling out Ebony Media with a rebuke no media company covets. Marlon A. Walker, NABJ’s vice president for print, said Ebony Media earned the “thumbs-down” designation because of its treatment of writers who are “near and dear” to NABJ, which is considered the nation’s largest organization of journalists of color. “To hear writers whose words bring us much joy aren’t being paid for those words is sad, unconscionable, unacceptable,” Walker said, adding pointedly, “Johnson is probably rolling over in his grave.”

Gibson acknowledges the baptism by fire that has ensued since he and Willard Jackson, his partner in a private equity concern, Clear View Group LLC, purchased Ebony and Jet from Johnson Publishing. This was their first foray into the media business, a leap the Austin, Texas, businessmen made into an industry undergoing seismic shifts and with the magazines most familiar to black readers barely hanging on. At the time Gibson said, “We made this purchase because this is an iconic brand — it’s the most-recognized brand in the African-American community. We just think this is a great opportunity for us.”

They now know a lot more than they did a year ago after “making the hard decision that we really need to sit down and think about how Ebony and Jet are going to look and feel for the next 70 years,” Gibson said.

Michael Gibson is making plans for “how Ebony and Jet are going to look and feel for the next 70 years.”

They have reshuffled and restructured, shedding editors who were publicly discussing long-range plans just days before being given the boot and then  bringing Linda Johnson Rice back from her emeritus status to guide Ebony Media as CEO. As head of Johnson Publishing, it was Johnson Rice, daughter of its founder, who had decided to sell to Gibson and Jackson. At the time she described that decision as “the next chapter in retaining the legacy that my father, John H. Johnson, built to ensure the celebration of African-Americans.” Upon her return to a more active role in March, she told the Chicago Tribune, “Ebony is an integral part of my life, and I think it’s very exciting to be able to help to move the brand forward.”

Two immediate problems the team faces are paying the freelancers on whom the magazine has relied pretty much from its inception and delivering magazines to subscribers’ mailboxes on time.

The situation with freelancers, Gibson said, “is unfortunate.” He acknowledged that these writers, many of whom rely on the often modest fees as the mainstay of their incomes, are crucial to the existence of magazine. His explanation of why so many of them have gone public with their grievances veers from his notion that some writers will always be “disgruntled” at the pace of compensation to a concession that the company has been at fault in not paying on a timely basis. But, he insists, “We’re going to correct that and make that good with everybody and pay them 100 percent.”

Gibson attributed the home-delivery problem that began with the November issue to a change in printers and a contract dispute that ensued, which delayed shipments to Ebony’s 1 million or so subscribers. “That put us out of sync,” he said. As of late July, he anticipated that they would ship out the June issue and the combined July-August issue within a matter of weeks.

 

Where in the world is Ebony?

The physical presence of Ebony Media has also been a cause of confusion.

“Headquarters for Ebony will continue to be in Chicago, where Linda lives and has her office,” Gibson said. “We’ll also have our production staff there, and we have some editorial there. We’ll have the lifestyle and fashion editors in New York, where they are today.”

Because so much of its emphasis now is on celebrities and the entertainment industry, the company is re-opening an office in Los Angeles. “Some of our editorial team will reside in L.A. We’re not all the way there yet. We don’t have permanent offices there but we have a couple of people working out of the L.A. area.” By the end of the year the L.A. office should be fully operational, he said, but now Ebony Media in L.A. is primarily a one-woman show.

Tracey Ferguson has been tapped to oversee both Ebony and Jet.

That woman is Tracey Ferguson, the editor in chief of Jet since February who now has that role for both Ebony and Jet.  An entrepreneur, socialite and reality TV star, Ferguson came to Ebony Media from Jones magazine, an online publication she founded in Houston in 2005 after the death of her husband, Gary Ferguson. It sprang from banter at a local book club and in 2010 went national, with her billing it as “the premiere fashion and beauty shopping guide for women of color across multiple mediums and formats.” Her reality show on the BET-owned Centric channel in 2010, “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” followed her efforts to launch a national magazine while raising two teenagers, including Kendall, the R&B singer who is her daughter with El Debarge. The two were married in the 1990s.

“She is innovative. She has a real fresh look and has a great vision for how we should look and feel,” Gibson said, conveying his confidence in her ability to serve both Ebony and Jet audiences. “She has a very good vision and a strategy for how we should blend those two constituents and be able to still stay very true to the Ebony brand as well as to the Jet brand.”

Going forward, Ebony Media wants to maximize what Gibson calls, “the strength of the brand,” and that means that print editions will no longer be a main revenue stream for the company. Jet, which has been an exclusively online publication since 2014, is billed as “the major pop-culture catalyst for today’s multicultural millennial” – joining Urban One’s Cassius, among others, in courting that potentially lucrative demographic with a focus on lifestyle and entertainment. A print edition of Jet will make a return to the newsstands four times a year, starting in September, Gibson said.

Ebony.com,  the digital platform, will also expand, providing fresher content – including video – between printings of the eight to 10 regular issues envisioned each year. Gibson anticipates that readers will jump at the chance to take deep digital dives into Ebony’s extensive archival material to explore a variety of topics via Ebony.com. In addition, building upon the popular, and profitable, reception of special coffee table-quality newsstand editions featuring the Obamas – President Obama in December; Michelle Obama in March – plans are underway to produce more.

Plans are underway to produce more special editions like this one.

Just as Essence the magazine has become at least as well known for its annual Essence Festival in New Orleans for more than 20 years, Ebony could become known for its sponsorship of events, Gibson said, as well as for anticipated collaborations with film and television productions based on real-life stories covered by Ebony in years past.

While many media-savvy observers see the writing on the wall, just as many are pulling for Gibson and the Ebony Media team because Ebony has loomed so long as a cultural touchstone. And John H. Johnson himself famously said, “Failure is a word that I simply don’t accept.”

 

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