Under new ownership, 'Ebony' magazine bets on boosting Black business

Oct 31, 2021
Originally published on October 31, 2021 9:27 am

Ebony magazine has shown the glamour and grit of Black life since Nov. 1, 1945, when Black entrepreneur John Johnson published the first issue. He intended it to be a Black version of Henry Luce's Life magazine.

Ebony's stories and glossy photos of Black politicians, athletes, protesters, artists, models and college students have fed the souls of Black people for generations.

But in recent years the magazine faced the same challenges as many other traditional print publications. Now, as it turns 76, the publication is rebooting and hoping for a revival with a new approach.

John Johnson's company, Johnson Publishing, sold Ebony and its sister magazine Jet to a private equity firm in 2016.

Ebony stopped printing its magazine in 2019 and Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy the same year.

The magazines changed hands again last year, with Milwaukee Bucks alum and Black businessman Ulysses Bridgeman buying Ebony and Jet for $14 million in December. It officially relaunched in March.

Lessons from the historical Black press

Ebony is embracing a purely digital format to reach audiences. But now many media platforms are making stories about Black people. Clint Wilson taught journalism at Howard University and recalls a similar moment during the civil rights era.

Ebony Magazine

"The white press, not just the written press, but television news shows. At that time you had NBC, ABC, CBS — they were all covering the stories of civil rights," he says. "We just lost control of our own news."

Many of the weekly newspapers that formed the Black press during that time have survived. Wilson estimates around 200 remain today.

Buried in the history of the Black press are possible clues for how to compete in today's media environment.

Ebony Magazine

"If we go back to the founding of the Black press, there was a hunger, a thirst to unify as a community," Wilson says.

The first Black newspaper, called Freedom's Journal, was founded in 1827. Then came many more, including the Pittsburgh Courier, The Chicago Defender, Frederick Douglass' The North Star, and Charlotta Bass' The California Eagle.

"When the movie Birth of a Nation was being filmed ... [Bass] was the one that alerted other Black publications around the country that this film was being made and how degrading it was," Wilson says, with Bass forcing the director to cut some scenes.

Ebony pivots to financial literacy and building Black wealth

Ebony is evoking that spirit of organizing around issues such as abolition, voting rights and opposing racist housing and labor practices with its new focus: "Move Black Forward."

Ebony Magazine

Michelle Ghee became Ebony's CEO in January. She says the publication is pivoting toward promoting Black "generational wealth." Ebony isn't abandoning celebrity and entertainment, but is doubling down on content that builds financial literacy and wealth and promotes business ownership.

"African Americans are not getting compensated, they're not getting honored, they're not getting hired at the rate at which they're contributing to the American fabric," Ghee says.

"We have to begin to educate, but also give people tools so that they can too begin to build their businesses. I'm flying from place to place literally meeting small business owners asking: How can we help you, how can we support?"

As part of the new mission, Ebony has put on "block party" events in Atlanta, New York City and New Orleans designed to highlight and empower small Black businesses.

Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution, who has studied Black businesses and wealth, says the new focus will boost efforts toward economic parity and mobility and help to reshape racist perceptions.

Ebony Magazine

"Our elders used to say: Our ice is just as cold [as that of white people]. They knew that our services, our goods are just as good. And so if we can remove those negative stereotypes, we can really eat at the wealth divide that currently exists," he says.

Ebony is gambling that its new approach will make a difference and pay off for the magazine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Ebony magazine turns 76 tomorrow, an anniversary it nearly wasn't able to reach. As NPR's Andrew Craig reports, the mainstay of Black American culture is attempting a revival and reaching back into Black history to do it.

ANDREW CRAIG, BYLINE: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me." This Muhammad Ali quote is scrawled on the cover of Ebony magazine's August 2016 issue. It's a special collector's edition, a tribute to Ali shortly after he died. It lies on a table about 14 feet long, awash with anthologies, political pamphlets and poetry, all by Black authors. Welcome to For Keeps Bookstore.

ROSA DUFFY: I'm Rosa, by the way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi.

DUFFY: Nice to meet you.

CRAIG: Owner Rosa Duffy collects Ebony magazines.

DUFFY: If you grew up in a Black household, Ebonies were everywhere. It's almost like, you know, first nature. So, you know, it's one of our languages.

CRAIG: Ebony magazine has shown the glamour and grit of Black life since November 1, 1945, when Black entrepreneur John Johnson published the first issue. He intended it to be a Black version of Henry Luce's Life magazine. Ebony's stories and glossy photos of Black politicians, athletes, artists, models and college students have fed the souls of Blacks for generations. Rosa's friend, WJ Lofton, was visiting the store that day.

W J LOFTON: It allows us to see ourselves. And also, it takes the Black experience and it shares it with the world. The pages in Ebony - it's cartography.

CRAIG: Ebony stopped printing its magazine in 2019. And after years of financial and legal troubles, John Johnson's company went bankrupt in 2020. Milwaukee Bucks alum and Black businessman Junior Bridgeman bought Ebony and its sister magazine Jet for $14 million in December 2020. Ebony has since embraced a purely digital format to reach audiences but finds itself in a marketplace now crowded with Black stories. Clint Wilson taught journalism at Howard University and recalls a similar moment during the civil rights era.

CLINT WILSON: The white press, and not just the written press, but television news shows - at that time, you had NBC, ABC, CBS. They were all covering stories of civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is a CBS News Special Report with CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.

WALTER CRONKITE: The summer of 1964 will be marked in history as the summer of civil rights.

WILSON: We just lost control of our own news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sit-in demonstrators at a lunch counter were doused with mustard and ketchup the first day. Policemen occasionally clubbed demonstrators and used a variety of other tactics designed to break their spirit.

CRAIG: To Wilson, our own news means the Black press - outlets, like the Chicago Defender and the now-defunct Pittsburgh Courier, founded by and dedicated to Black people. Wilson estimates around 200 are still around. And he says buried in the history of the Black press may be clues for how to compete today.

WILSON: If we go back to the founding of the Black press, there was a hunger, a thirst to unify as a community.

CRAIG: The first Black newspaper, called Freedom's Journal, was founded in 1827. Frederick Douglass launched The North Star in 1848, and Charlotta Bass took the helm of the California Eagle in 1912.

WILSON: When the movie "Birth Of A Nation" was being filmed, she was the one that alerted other Black publications around the country that this film was being made. She crusaded against the film.

CRAIG: And had some success in removing it from theaters. Abolition, voting rights, racist housing and labor practices - they were all among the many issues the Black press addressed. And there are echoes of this spirit in today's Ebony and their new motto, Move Black Forward.

MICHELLE GHEE: To generational wealth...

CRAIG: Michelle Ghee became Ebony's CEO in January.

GHEE: ...African Americans are not getting compensated. They're not getting hired at the rate in which they're contributing to the American fabric. And so we have to begin to educate, but also give people tools so that they can, too, begin to build their businesses. I'm flying from place to place, literally meeting small businesses. How can we help you? How can we support?

CHRISTYN BRECKENRIDGE: I am Christyn Breckenridge, and I am the owner-operator of 3rdEyeView.

CRAIG: 3rdEyeView provides affordable vision screenings, eye exams and eyewear to the underserved. It was one of the businesses in Houston at Ebony's Block Party event designed to highlight and empower small Black businesses. There have also been block parties in Atlanta, New York and New Orleans.

BRECKENRIDGE: The exposure, marketing tactics - it really fostered almost a sense of pride within our people just to be working alongside with them.

CRAIG: Ebony isn't abandoning celebrity and entertainment. But in doubling down on content that builds financial literacy and wealth and business ownership, Brooking Institution senior fellow Andre Perry sees engagement in the fight for economic parity and mobility, and a strike at racism.

ANDRE PERRY: Our elders used to say, our ice is just as cold. They knew that our services, our goods are just as good. And so if we can remove those negative stereotypes, we can really eat at the wealth divide that currently exists.

CRAIG: Ebony is gambling that its new approach will make a difference and pay off for the magazine. The dice in Ebony's hand - they were carved from the bones of Black activism.

Andrew Craig, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.