In recent years, Ebony Magazine has had more than its fair share of turmoil.
However, after what’s seemed like an endless deluge of adversity—from embarrassing website outages, to the forced removal of Willard Jackson as CEO, to involuntary bankruptcy filings, to a class-action lawsuit for unpaid wages, to even accusing The Root of spearheading a “systematic campaign of misinformation” (and subsequently taking an L in court)—the once-revered publication was purchased for a cool $14 million in December by former Milwaukee Bucks forward Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman.
Aside from the opportunity to provide a legacy brand that was seemingly on its last legs with renewed life, the sale has also afforded Ebony the unique opportunity to rectify its wrongs—“[Founder John H.] Johnson is probably rolling over in his grave,” NABJ Vice President of Print, Marlon A. Walker, once said of the publication’s recent state of affairs—and rehabilitate its reputation by attempting to restore its trust with the Black community.
The individual overseeing this ambitious effort is Marielle Bobo, Ebony’s newly appointed Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President of Programming. With more than 20 years of experience at leading Black media brands such as Essence, Urban One, and Ayesha Curry’s quarterly magazine, Sweet July, the seasoned industry dynamo may be Ebony’s last hope at revitalizing its once-illustrious brand. And in an exclusive interview with The Root, she explained why the soul of Ebony Magazine is still very much worth fighting for.
“Obviously, the brand has faced challenges in the past,” Bobo said of the company’s much-publicized recent history. “Frankly, many media companies have. I think the landscape is just very challenging as media companies have figured out how to kind of navigate the space.”
She ain’t lying.
In the last year alone, we’ve seen heavyweights like Condé Nast, Buzzfeed, and The Atlantic—amongst countless others—tailspin from furloughs, layoffs, and/or reductions in salary. But what makes Ebony’s plight unique is that the same “niche” audience that it caters to is also its life’s blood—which made its alleged failure to properly compensate the creatives who allow it to even exist feel like so much more of a personal affront.
Also of note, for many of us, Ebony Magazine was a definitive part of our childhoods; a literal guest in our homes. For this generation and those that precede it, it’s not an exaggeration at all to call Ebony an extension of our own families. And such a brazen betrayal of trust is something you just don’t do to those you love.
Yet despite its transgressions, the brand still carries tremendous weight within Black households. So while most would shy away from being affiliated with Ebony’s sullied reputation, Bobo welcomes the challenge with open arms.
“I just have always had a love of the brand,” she said. “I think despite the challenges, it has a legacy. You know, the brand has been around for 75 years. It’s the brand that I grew up on. And so, to be honest, it was an honor and a privilege to come on board at the helm of this brand, especially at this time. I think the brand’s absence was very felt. And I think I take it as an honor to have been in this position to come on board, to help reimagine the brand at this point.”
Between its declamatory articles and historic photo archive, Ebony has always prided itself on serving as a time capsule for Black life in America. And under Bobo’s stewardship, it appears that it will return to those roots while deploying a more contemporary approach—befitting of its “weight and prominence.”
“Right now in Black media, there’s a void in the marketplace,” she said. “We’re leaning into the roots of what the brand has always stood for, which is politics, social activism, and current events. But also this kind of celebration of Black joy and also leaning heavily into the arts.”
She added, “And how do we serve our men better? Years ago, there was Ebony Man. And through the years, they kind of got rid of that. But we really want to create robust content that really serves Black men. Everything from conversations around style and modern masculinity to politics. Lifestyle and finance and all the conversations that men are having.”
And for those wondering if Ebony will buck trends and make its triumphant return to print, well...
“Everyone knows Ebony as a brand that has always kind of had this print publication,” Bobo continued. “This is the first time that it’s going to be really digital first. We’re taking a really unique perspective this time around with going digital first and really reimagining what this brand can look like in this digital age. It’s about bridging the gap, how we pull in the millennials and the younger readers while also servicing our legacy readers who have been with us forever. So I think we’re really the only outlet that can kind of do that—bridge that gap in generations. I think that’s the unique perspective that we bring that no one else can.”
The elephant in the room is that this unique perspective will also require the contributions of talented Black creators. And considering Ebony’s track record of non-payment in that regard—which we’ve reported on at length at The Root—Bobo acknowledges that reestablishing trust is a necessity.
“All of that has been documented and there have been challenges,” she admitted. “This leadership team is really dedicated to creating a safe space for Black journalists.”
As evidence of this fact, she claims that former employees have been eager to return to the brand that they once helped build. And she’s speaking from personal experience, considering she herself once worked as Ebony’s Fashion and Beauty Director for more than five years, playing a crucial role in helping to produce those iconic covers we all know and love.
“We’ve had some other former employees beyond myself, but some other members of the team that have worked at the brand and different owners, different iterations of ownership that have come back to return to work for the brand,” she said. “We also have former journalists that have contributed in the past that have come back to contribute to the brand once again.”
She added, “We’re just really being very intentional about making sure that we’re fostering those relationships with some of the writers from the past. We’re really honoring what that commitment looks like as far as compensation and really creating a space where they feel safe and heard. And so we’re just really rebuilding that. But I think the fact that we’ve had a lot of folks from the past return to the brand, I think it speaks volumes to kind of the confidence that folks have in terms of what this new regime can bring to the table versus what’s gone on in the past.”
Does it? Or is Ebony merely capitalizing off of the desperation of Black creators having limited options elsewhere? She herself acknowledged the plight of media outlets numerous times throughout the course of our interview, but seemed elusive in addressing how exactly—as Editor-in-Chief—that she would personally ensure Ebony would rectify its past mistakes and properly compensate contributors under her watch. That’s not to say her intentions aren’t pure, but she seems over-reliant on conviction that the brand no longer has.
That being said, Bobo didn’t avoid discussing the topic at all. In fact, she maintains that part of mending that bridge with Black creators specifically, and the Black community in general, is to simply focus on doing the work instead of wasting time offering empty promises.
“All we can really do is do the work,” she said. “Especially because of the history. [...] [The public] wants to see, when it boils down to it, that you going to do the work. And so I think for us it’s really about what we do from this point out. These are things, unfortunately, that are part of the brand’s past.”
That work includes not only digital content, but a renewed focus on community engagement and live events—such as the popular Ebony 100 gala and a town hall series called Community Connect.
“You need to meet the audience where they are,” Bobo said. “That’s something that we really want to blow out and make a regular thing, where we’re meeting the audience where they are and we’re hearing what the concerns are of the community. We’re having continual engagement with them. So, yes, events will definitely be a big part of the plan as well, in addition to kind of creating this new digital experience.”
Bobo was also willing to discuss Ebony’s much-publicized financial woes, which include auctioning off its historic archive in 2019 for $30 million and an involuntary bankruptcy filing in 2020.
“It’s a new day. It’s a fresh start,” she said. “It’s the different ownership. There are no ties to any of what went on in the past as far as previous ownership and debts and all those things. It’s a completely new slate, a completely new company, completely new ownership. Just a fresh start from here on [out].”
Some may be cynical of Bobo’s optimism—and entirely justified in feeling that way considering Ebony’s instability as of late—but with her at the helm, at the very least, the embattled publication finally sounds like it’s doing its best to get back on track.
“Ebony is back,” she said. “We’re back and we’re excited. We are here and ready to continue serving this audience that we are still committed to. Telling our stories and just committing ourselves to honoring our Black audience and Black creatives. Our contributors [will be] telling our stories in a robust and colorful way.”
She continued, “We are going to be leaning into bridging the gap with creatives and different generations. And there’s going to be a lot of exciting things coming down the pipeline.”