Essence Isn't a Magazine; It's a Religion

Tamara Jeffries, a former editor at the black women's publication, writes at Poynter that the embattled monthly is more than just pages glued together. It's an institution and a reflection of the African-American female experience.

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Actress Viola Davis with former Essence Editor in Chief Constance White (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Lots going on at at Essence magazine lately: Its publisher, Time Inc., is being sold, and masthead shake-ups left Editor in Chief Constance White dismissed. In the wake of these events, Tamara Jeffries, another former editor at the publication, weighs in on Poynter, detailing exactly what the publication means to black culture.

And here's the problem: Essence was never a mass product. Essence was a religion. Black women bought it, read it, saved it, shared it. As the first major magazine for women of color, it was the publication its readers had grown up with. It was iconic. They believed in it; it believed in them. Even when (I suspect) people weren't reading it as much, they still subscribed. They didn't want NOT to have it.

To keep Essence essential, Time Inc. or a new parent company will need to understand how to do religion as well as it knows how to do magazines. Yes, the decision-makers could argue that religion is not their job; selling magazines is. But what is that but proselytizing -- bringing new people into the fold and bringing the prodigals back? How do you do that but by appealing to them on a soul level?

So, who can do that best? Meredith certainly knows how to do niche and has a feel for "real people." That's evident in titles like More, attuned to a sophisticated woman over 40; Better Homes and Gardens, a shelter mag that feels like home; and its handful of family and parenting titles. If it can, as it claims, "tap into the special interests of women" like the Essence reader, Meredith might be a good match.

Read Tamara Jeffries' entire piece at Poynter.

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