Monroe had visions of a combination of Ebony, Vanity Fair, and Emerge, the formerly hard-hitting but now defunct black monthly that once put an image of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the cover made up to look like a lawn jockey. “It could have been the best job I ever had,” Monroe says. “But almost as soon as I got there, things went south.’’
Advertising revenues plummeted across the industry, and Ebony put its grand ambitions on the back burner. Monroe hung on for as long as he could, thinking once the economy turned around the job of remaking Ebony would resume.
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.
Monroe says there was a generational tension between old and new over Ebony’s future both inside and outside of the magazine. “Linda Johnson-Rice,’’ he says, “was always very concerned about walking the fine line between bringing in new readers and not alienating its traditional base.’’
Monroe quit last year, “frustrated out of my mind’’ over a lack of money for writers and a coherent editorial direction. If Ebony gives up as well, Monroe says, “My generation will be saddened and will miss it. People under fifty probably won’t miss it at all. They feel Ebony has served its purpose.’’
Perhaps, but many of the issues of race and discrimination that Ebony has addressed in the last six decades still exist, from soaring African-American unemployment rates to a widening wealth chasm between blacks and whites. Although there are younger, Internet-savvy voices emerging to carry on the fight, these newcomers have not yet passed the test of time. It would be a wasteful shame to lose Ebony’s experience and hard-earned authority. “There is a role for Ebony still to play, beyond sentimental, particularly in the age of Obama,’’ Monroe says. “I think there is a dangerously erroneous perception that now that Obama has reached the mountaintop, issues of race are no longer important. Whether it is health care, education, or housing, there are still huge gaps and a lot of work to do. To look at these problems from an African-American perspective is more important than ever.’’
Every month, Johnson Publishing Company puts the covers of its magazines in the huge window of its lobby, a little old-school advertising. The other evening, as darkness fell over Chicago and a cold wind blew down South Michigan Avenue, I stood in front of JPC’s building, peering through the window at four large photographs positioned there to face the street. One was a recent cover of Jet, featuring a smiling Michelle Obama. “Her Power of Influence,’’ the headline read. Next to her was the February Ebony cover promising, among other features, “Love Stories Revealed: How 8 Couples Keep It Going,’’ and “Demystifying Islam.’’
A few inches from the giant reproductions was a similar-sized photograph of John H. Johnson, the man who started it all. His photograph was placed in the window after he died. Now a portrait of his wife, Eunice, has been added.
I paid my respects to the Johnson parents but realized I’m not ready to say goodbye to their dream. I’m pulling hard for Ebony, the dowager, to find that fountain of youth. Not tomorrow, but today. I hear everything anyone could ever need or want can be found on the Internet.