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.
Last year, Linda Johnson-Rice, chairman and CEO of the company and the daughter of Ebony’s founder, John H. Johnson, was reportedly seeking a buyer—or a partner with deep pockets—to keep the magazine alive. (As this issue went to press, Bloomberg reported that NBA legend Magic Johnson was interested in buying the company.) Johnson-Rice declined to comment for this article. These are tough times for her company, the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), and her family. Her mother, Eunice, who came up with the name Ebony, died in January at age ninety-three. Her father died in 2005. In a prepared statement, Wendy E. Parks, a company spokeswoman, said that the privately held JPC does not disclose in-depth financial information. “However,” she said, “I assure you that, like any conservatively managed business, we are continuing to make strategic decisions we believe are prudent to help us weather the current economy.”
The malady afflicting Ebony is an industry-wide epidemic: not enough advertising; not enough readers. “Ebony’s readership is dying off and it’s not being replaced,’’ says Charles Whitaker, the Helen Gurley Brown Research Chair in Magazine Journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University and a former editor at Ebony. “I don’t see how they are going to make it. Ebony really has a tough road ahead.’’
According to Whitaker, Ebony’s circulation is around one million, and dropping fast. In the early 1990s, the circulation was about 1.8 million, he says. Although it has a Web site, EbonyJet.com, Whitaker says it has not done nearly enough with it to capture the young black audience. Like everyone else, these readers have many options in today’s fragmented, Internet-driven media market, including the black-oriented, Time Warner-owned Essence magazine, Ebony’s most direct competitor.
Richard Prince, author of the online column Journal-isms, says Ebony blew a perfect opportunity to make a new-media splash. It was Ebony that was given the first interview with President-elect Barack Obama. But instead of putting the interview on its Web site immediately, Ebony waited to publish it weeks later in the magazine, apparently concerned about hurting newsstand sales. In the meantime, the new president had sat down with 60 Minutes, which quickly put its interview on the air. “The whole effect of Ebony having the first interview was lost,’’ Prince says. “They’re so afraid of undermining the print product that they’re falling behind.’’
Yet in January, when the earth shook so violently beneath Haiti that Port-Au-Prince was reduced to rubble, Ebony’s director of photography, Dudley Brooks, traveled to the devastated island, blogging and shooting pictures for EbonyJet.com:
It was close to an hour-long drive to Titayen, a village on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where small convoys of dump trucks deposited the bodies of quake victims. I had heard stories that, earlier in the week, hundreds had been deposited there—amidst the garbage and debris. They were spread on the very field where Papa Doc Duvalier deposited the remains of his enemies years ago . Mass graves are easy to find—you follow the smell. It’s an acrid, powerful, disturbing smell that, depending on the wind, can drift for miles. It stays in your nose hairs and saturates your clothes.
Powerful, timely, important stuff. That’s not all. In the last few months Ebony and Jet have undergone attractive face lifts, with new features and a sleek new look. But is it too little, too late? Whitaker, the Medill professor, thinks it is. Three years ago, Whitaker turned the plight of his old employer into a class project for his graduate students. The assignment was how to save and rebrand Ebony for the twenty-first century. Company officials allowed the students access to some of Ebony’s financial records, after requiring the class and the professor to sign a confidentiality agreement, Whitaker says. When the project was over, Whitaker says, he was “stunned’’ at how poorly Ebony was doing. “The bleeding we saw three years ago is hemorrhaging now,’’ he says. “There’s no way to stanch that.’’
Whitaker hopes he is wrong. He spent a total of ten years as an editor at Ebony between 1985 and 2002. “I became a journalist because I wanted to work for Ebony,’’ he says. “It will be tough to see it go. It’s an institution. But sometimes institutions become obsolete. If Ebony goes away, maybe it will allow someone else some room. Maybe it will give someone else incentive to replace it.’’