Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ebony Magazine - the Unintended Consequences of Success

When I was growing up, one of the highlight of my weeks was Thursday!

Thursday was the day I would walk to the store and purchase my own copy of Jet Magazine. Monthly our monthly Ebony Magazine would arrive. For me, life during the late 60's and throughout the '70's, my window on the world of black America, whether it was politics, culture, entertainment, sports or society, came from these publications and the few others (like 'Sepia', a long defunct - at least as far as I know - black publication that, while not on par with Ebony, was still interesting and informative).

Before I started buying Jet on my own, my parents back issues of these two publications taught me who Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Whitney M. Young and Adam Clayton Powell, before I read about them in books. I knew about Billie Holiday, the lynching of Emmitt Till (and others) before I saw documentaries about them. I knew about Josephine Baker, Sammy Davis, Jr., Abby Lincoln and Sidney Poitier, before I ever saw them on television or in a movie. And I know about black football, baseball and basketball players before I developed interest in any game.

And I was exposed to black politicians like Percy Sutton, Carl Stokes and Shirley Chism long before I read about them in mainstream media.

Publisher John H. Johnson connected black America in ways that no one else did. Local black newspapers let you know what was happening across town. They were valuable in that regard. But Ebony and Jet let you know what was happening with black people around the world.

Ebony Magazine is now in deep financial trouble.

"Ebony magazine, the African-American monthly, has been a beloved institution in black America for more than sixty years. These days the love is still there, but the luster has faded. One of the few African-American-owned magazines in the country, Ebony is like a once-beautiful, stylish elderly relative, desperately searching for the fountain of youth. Born November 1, 1945, Ebony showed off her glamour and vitality for decades. But she is tired now, debt-ridden and seriously ill, her once crystalline voice a raspy whisper. The black celebrities who once courted her now have other media suitors, thanks in no small part to the trail Ebony blazed. Too many readers and advertisers have followed them."

That's pretty sad. Particularly since the financial woes of the Johnson Publishing Company, are the result of the unintended consequences of the dramatic improvements in race relations since its inception and the same fiscal crisis that is impacting all other publishing companies. The greatest irony, however, is that race relations improved, in part, because of the influence of Ebony/Jet, the crown jewel of JPC (Johnson Publishing Company) and its collateral ventures in fashion and beauty products. All of which showed that black people had vibrant life and culture in ways which knit together a 'community' from California to the Carolinas, from Illnois to Texas.
And it showed this black lifestyle with all of its challenges and triumphs, when it almost escaped attention from the mainstream media, unless it was exceptional or egregious.

"At a time when people of color almost never made it into the pages, let alone onto the covers, of Life or Look or scores of other “mainstream’’—read white—publications, Johnson sought to make African Americans and their accomplishments visible to the whole world. As Julieanna L. Richardson, an African-American archivist, puts it, “Ebony was a positive machine. It gave you a sense of self-worth.’’"

"For African Americans trapped in the segregated South, Ebony was a lifeline to the outside world. She was the chronicler of African-American firsts, source book of black pride and confidence. Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, in the ’40s and ’50s, Jesse Jackson remembers how the magazine helped turn a dreamy black boy into the globetrotting man who twice ran for president in the 1980s, helping clear the path for Barack Obama’s history-shattering march to the White House twenty years later."

"Jackson says his family had issues of Ebony “stacked up like furniture.’’ Many of his teachers, he says, “used Ebony to teach black history. Black history wasn’t in our textbooks.’’"

"In the 1960s, when the latest issue arrived in the Arizona mailbox of Dr. Clarence Laing and his wife, Laura, their young daughters, Mavis and Mercedes, would risk ripping the pages in their tug of war to see who would get to read it first. “There were just so few other black people in Phoenix in those days,’’ Mavis Laing says. “Ebony was the only way we learned what was happening with African Americans.’’"

"But now Ebony needs money, not memories. Word is she owes her printer millions. According to media reports, there’s a lien on her famous eleven-story headquarters in Chicago, overlooking Grant Park. The same park where some 200,000 people gathered to celebrate the realization of an Ebony reader’s wildest dreams: the election of a black president."

Some of Ebony's woes have to do with trying to find its niche in a digital age. There is evidence of trying to save the print version of the magazine while not being savvy enough in its use of the electronic media.

"When Ebony landed the first interview with President-elect Barack Obama, it blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, say observers. Rather than immediately publishing the story on the Web, editors decided to hold it for the print edition and got scooped by "60 Minutes" -- a telling sign of their failure to grasp that a new generation of media consumers is looking for instant access."

Then there is the challenge of trying to appeal to a new generation of readers without alienating the its old supporters.

"One day in 2007, more than a dozen members of Ebony’s editorial staff were seated around a gleaming table in the eighth-floor conference room, debating who should be included in the list of the twenty-five “coolest’’ black men of all time. Monroe, who is in his late fifties, and others nominated such notables as Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington, and Billy Dee Williams. The twenty- and thirty-something staffers rolled their eyes. “Can’t we have someone under fifty?’’ they pleaded."

With circulation down and apparent interest by potential new owners - including Magic Johnson, Ebony might survive yet. I hope so. The days of segregation may be over, but the days of a need for positive images and important news of what happens in black America is still very much with us.

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