An Icon Fades

Ebony shaped the black middle class, then misread its digital moment
March 16, 2010

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.

Some say her condition is critical and that she could soon die without an infusion of new ideas and the cash to back them up. Others say—sadly, always sadly—that it is too late. Those who love her should say their farewells.

Nonsense, says the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. He can never say goodbye. “It will not shut down,’’ he vows. “Its form might change. But that tree will not fall. We will not let it fall. It’s beyond my imagination.’’

“It’s unique to us emotionally,’’ he continues. “Everything the white culture said we couldn’t do, Ebony said we could do and do it better. You’d have Frank Sinatra. Then Ebony would display four pictures of Nat King Cole. You had an all-white basketball league. We had the Globetrotters. We could play basketball and entertain at the same time.’’

Back in the day, Ebony was the best way to keep up with the latest happenings in black America. The African-American elite—the movie stars, the singers, the ball players, the politicians, the preachers, the scholars—were all part of her flock. They were eager to talk to her about their trials and triumphs and then, if they were lucky, grace her cover for the whole nation to see. They weren’t appreciated—celebrated—anywhere else this way. To white magazines, they were invisible. Ebony, they knew, would treat them with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

She was good company. She was entertaining and informative while you waited at the dentist’s office or beauty shop. Each year she listed the most eligible black bachelors and bachelorettes in the country. If they got together, she had useful advice about marriage and décor. She was a role model, a mirror for the middle-class that reflected only dreams come true. On coffee tables across black America, Bibles and issues of Ebony lay side by side. After all, they had the same message: look here for the promise of paradise.

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Lots of people made fun of her, though, especially when the 1960s rolled around and black patience with white racism had worn thin. Her critics said Ebony was too moderate and soft for such momentous times. They called her bourgeois and said her head was filled with fluff. There was some truth in their harsh words. There still is.

But don’t let the glamour fool you. Ebony has a tough side, too. She didn’t always wear flouncy ruffles and Yves St. Laurent shoes. When she had to, she’d pull on a pair of sturdy boots and hit the freedom trail, singing “We Shall Overcome.’’ During the civil rights movement, Ebony and its petite sister publication Jet, the pocket-sized weekly, marched along every step of the way. Moneta Sleet Jr., the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, worked for Ebony. He won the award for a photograph of Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, at the slain civil rights leader’s funeral in 1968.

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.

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.’’

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.’’

Cheryl Contee, thirty-eight, is the founder of the blog Jack & Jill Politics: A black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics. She grew up with Ebony and Jet, but has a hard time remembering the last time she’s read an issue. Ebony, she says, has not updated its style or its use of the Web sufficiently to fit modern African Americans. “I think they’re trying to catch up,’’ she says. “The question is whether they have time.’’

Contee believes that while race still matters, it does not matter nearly as much as it did even a few years ago. “My experience in America is very different than the lives of my parents and grandparents,’’ she says. “If it weren’t for the increasing assimilation of African Americans into society, then there wouldn’t be a black president. I don’t know if Ebony and Jet necessarily acknowledge that reality.’’

Yet she says she started Jack and Jill Politics in 2006 because when she surveyed the Internet she did not “find the voice of the African-American middle class being respected and honored in any significant way.’’

Of course, that’s the same reason John H. Johnson started Ebony in the 1940s.

Veteran journalist Sylvester Monroe thought he had found his dream job when he joined Ebony as a senior editor in 2006. He had been a journalist for thirty-seven years, twenty-seven of them at Time and Newsweek. Monroe was lured to the magazine by the publisher’s promise that Ebony was going to be different. It was going to make a splash on the Internet and improve the writing in its print publications. “I was told we were going to bring Ebony into the twenty-first century,’’ he says, “that we were going to make it more relevant, give it some edge, bring it back to its old position as a relevant and important publication.’’

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.

Don Terry is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. He has worked at the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the St. Paul Dispatch, and The New York Times, where he was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the series “How Race is Lived in America.”