The iconic magazine hits the ropes.
Four years ago, at the funeral of Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson, then-Sen. Barack Obama remembered the man who almost single-handedly built the economic foundation for black-audience periodicals.
Through his magazines, Obama told the more than 2,000 mourners, “he shared countless news, large and small, that had been ignored for so long.”
Tavis Smiley also spoke about the legendary Johnson. “It never occurred to me to sell,” Smiley recalled Johnson saying to him. And although the founder had died, Smiley rejoiced that Johnson Publishing Co. was “still No. 1, and still 100 percent black-owned.”
It may not be for much longer. Newsweek reported recently that John Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, the chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing, is seeking a buyer, investor or buyout firm to take over Ebony. (Newsweek said it's unclear whether the company's other properties, including Jet, would be part of a possible sale.) Now it falls to publishers, academics and journalists to debate what went wrong with the company, which was founded in 1945, and what the future holds. (To add to publishing industry woes, it was announced last week that the print version of West Coast-based music publication URB magazine was going on hiatus.)
Many industry watchers say they are disappointed with the lack of innovation at the company, failure to invest more in Ebonyjet.com, and in general, the absence of strong and nimble leadership needed to keep pace with the 21st century.
Ebony is “a brand that’s lost its value and cachet,” says Charles Whitaker, a former Ebony editor and now a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who led a 2007 study of the magazine. “No one was sure what the content of Ebony is and what it stood for,” Whitaker says. “And the ‘no one’ included advertisers. People who got it just felt a sense of loyalty.”
Operations at Johnson Publishing, like at so many mainstream and niche publishing companies, have been in a tumultuous state over the past few years. Nearly a year after her father died, Rice hired an editorial director, Bryan Monroe, a former executive at the now-defunct Knight Ridder newspaper chain.
Monroe hired several journalists away from the mainstream media, and, in the process alienated some existing employees, some of whom took buyouts. Under Monroe, Ebony published a lavish issue on the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, took a stand against the N-word and featured eight different covers for its August 2008 issue: “The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time.” Partly because of Rice’s ties to fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama, Ebony scored the first postelection interview with the president-elect, though it was not published until Obama had granted other interviews.
Despite these attempts toward a new relevance, one staffer who prefers to remain anonymous says, “Ebony was still seen as a magazine for your grandparents or parents.” And rising expenditures for the new talent, travel and the mostly staff-photographed Ebony covers apparently were not matched by sufficient increases in newsstand sales and advertising revenue. Monroe resigned in April.
Amid the turmoil, Rice remained stalwart. “I am deeply committed to maintaining our presence and long-standing legacy in the African-American community,” she said in a statement. “Reshaping our organizational design will help ensure that we continue to evolve with the ever-changing media landscape.”
Other black publishers empathize with Ebony’s struggle. “It’s hard to do your best work when your back is against the wall,” says Brett Wright, chief creative officer of Uptown Media Group. In August, InterMedia Partners, in partnership with its portfolio company Uptown Media Group, along with Blackrock Digital, purchased the assets of Vibe and Vibe.com. Wright, 40, has also worked at Essence and The Source. “The last year for all of us—Uptown, Vibe, Ebony—has been a huge, huge challenge. I haven’t seen a marketplace like this ever, with the advertising, [and] the credit markets. We’re all challenged, and people were just operating out of fear.”Keith Clinkscales, senior vice president of content development and enterprises at ESPN, is the former CEO of Vanguarde Media, which published Honey, Savoy and Heart & Soul and he once served as CEO of Vibe as well. “Ebony has a history and is a treasure in the black community,” Clinkscales says, but then emphasizes the fact that “the magazine business model has to be constantly reexamined in the new world we live in. There will always be demands to change that paradigm—constantly.”
At least one group wants to rise to the challenge. Sidmel Estes, a longtime television executive producer and the founder and CEO of Breakthrough Inc., a media consulting company, says her Atlanta-based firm is working to assemble a group of investors “who want to see the next generation of Ebony.” She says there’s been a great deal of interest, but that it’s “guarded because of the state of the economy.”
Rescuing the ailing company will “take a consortium of investors who can come up with a minimum of $10 [million] to $20 million,” estimates Neil Foote, chairman of the National Association of Multicultural Media Executives. “That’s what will be needed to retool the content strategy, and invest in new media and events that will sustain the business for future generations.”
Raymond Roker, the founder and publisher of URB (“the urban alternative”), which until recently had been printing independently and without interruption for 20 years, sums up the situation in his announcement: “To simply blame the prevailing conditions on the financial markets is only partially accurate. We’re experiencing an incredible and sweeping shift in consumption and media habits worldwide, especially in the magazine market. It’s affecting giant publishers like Condé Nast as well as niche publishers like us. … We have decided to take a hiatus from the print edition of URB so that we can evaluate the landscape, relaunch URB.com, and decide where we fit in the new … media ecosystem.”
The fact that Johnson Publishing is not alone in struggling is little comfort to those who grew up on Ebony and Jet. “It’s painful to witness a once-thriving enterprise that instilled black pride being on a respirator, if not its deathbed,” said George Curry, former editor of the now-defunct Emerge magazine. “The economy is hurting most magazines, but the decline of Johnson Publishing Co. began long before the steep decline in magazine advertising.”
"In recent years…the magzine has placed even more emphasis on sucking up to celebrities while letting the little substance Ebony had go by the wayside. Consequently, the magazine began to lose readers.”
Whatever the future, Clint C. Wilson II says Ebony’s place in history is secure. He’s a professor of journalism and graduate professor of communication at Howard University. “It was prominently placed in the waiting rooms of black physicians, dentists and lawyers,” says Wilson. “It presented a sophisticated face of black America that showed the world we were the equals of anyone, although subjected to the indignities of racism.”
Richard Prince writes “Journal-isms,” an online column about diversity issues in the news business sponsored by the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.