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.’’
The founder of Ebony, the late John H. Johnson, borrowed $500 to start his first magazine, Negro Digest, in 1942, putting up his mother’s furniture as collateral. He created Ebony weeks after World War II ended, and a few years after that he launched Jet. For decades, these two periodicals have been the heart and soul of his now troubled media empire.
To be sure, Johnson created the magazines to make money. That he did in abundance. His publications “formed powerful prototypes for success in black media’’ and “set the standard for black business in America,’’ writes Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University. But Johnson also wanted to do more than that. He wanted to change hearts and minds. Johnson wanted to show people on both sides of the color line a simple truth: black is beautiful, too.
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.’’
“That need still exists,’’ she adds. “We’re still bombarded with negative images. It affects the soul of our community. It affects the world’s perception of us.’’
If Ebony belongs to the past, then Christopher Rabb and Cheryl Contee belong to the future. They are among the frontiersmen and women of the increasingly expanding black blogosphere. Rabb, forty, is the founder and “chief evangelist’’ of the blog Afro-Netizen. He started the site of political and cultural commentary in 1999 as an e-mail newsletter. Within eighteen months, he says, he had 10,000 subscribers. “It filled a gap,’’ Rabb says. “Everywhere I’d go and there were more than a dozen black folks, someone would say, ‘Rabb, are you the Afro-Netizen guy?’’’
He is also the great-great-grandson of John Henry Murphy Sr., who founded the Baltimore Afro American newspaper in 1892. Rabb was on the board of the Afro American for ten years but resigned in 2007 partly because he felt the paper “wasn’t moving fast enough to integrate technology into the business model.’’
“Many of our institutions have fought technology because they thought it would run us out of business,’’ he says. “Ebony was one of the strongest household brands in black America for decades. It could have been a leader in social media. But family-owned businesses tend to be the most conservative businesses. No one wants to change a winning formula—until it’s too late.’’