Ebony Has Evolved, but Will It Be Enough?

Facing a Possible Sale, Mag Still Struggles to Shed Staid Image

By Published on .

Pepper Miller
Pepper Miller
I wonder how many readers of this blog have recently read Ebony. Ebony is a good magazine and the Ebony/Jet website is great. After rumors and speculation about Ebony's financial challenges, Newsweek detailed the issues surrounding the potential sale of the oldest magazine targeting African Americans. According to Newsweek, Johnson Publishing, holding company for Ebony and Jet magazines and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, has approached buyers and investors that include Viacom (owners of BET), and Time Inc. (owners of Essence Magazine).

This is not that surprising. In February, we learned about deep staff cuts and by June, it was reported that Johnson Publishing mortgaged Ebony's Chicago Loop headquarters to its printer RR Donnelly for $12.7 million.

Too bad. Within the past three years, Johnson Publishing Chairman-CEO Linda Johnson Rice brought in top notch talent to counter the "something I read while visiting my grandmother" perceptions. As creative director, Harriet Cole and her team of designers transformed Ebony into a beautiful, stylized publication. And within the past three years, the editorial has been shaped into insightful, relevant, contemporary content. Cole's duties were expanded when she recently replaced outgoing VP-Editorial Director Bryan Munroe. Additionally, former P&Ger Anne Sempowski-Ward was promoted from Fashion Fair president to president of Johnson Publishing, and Eric Easter, VP-digital and entertainment, one of the brightest minds in the digital space, revamped the Ebony/Jet website into an entertaining and wealth of useful content.

So trying to swim upstream in the river of Economic Downturn, with a smart team, Ebony never launched the "new Ebony." It took a few months and my favorite issue -- "Who You Callin' a ..." which was in response to the Don Imus slanderous remarks about the Rutgers' University basketball team -- for me to realize that there was something new -- even edgy -- about Ebony.

Not launching didn't help. Word of mouth could not take on the powerful old school dated brand perceptions. I suspect one reason for not launching is Ebony's apparent hold onto their loyal long-standing, but declining older target, while also pursuing a much younger target.

Who is Ebony today? Who is Ebony really talking to? Those questions go unanswered and seem to loom over every issue. Dr. Boyce Watkins, one of the most highly sought-after African-American scholars and Black social commentators, also points to Ebony's slow embrace of digital.

The thing about Ebony and Jet... is that much of their financial demise could possibly have been averted. If management had taken stronger steps to adjust to the advent of the Internet, perhaps they could have remained profitable.
Nonetheless, if and when Ebony makes the sale, I hope the new owners will be committed to taking the business to a new relevant and meaningful level and not lower the still important value that Ebony and Jet have with the Black community.

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