Ebony and Jet magazines, published since 1945 by the Johnson Publishing Company and based in Chicago, has a proud historical legacy. But over the last few years it’s hit some pretty bumpy roads, and it’s currently fighting for survival.
By way of discourse, having worked at the magazine and the website for a couple of years, several years ago, I can testify that the company took too long to enter and embrace the digital space that has killed many print magazines and newspapers over the last decade, along with years of being mismanaged. Like many other long standing publishing companies, they were too slow or simply refused to see the future, and are now struggling to play catch up.
As a result, the past few years have seen a constant flow of bad news. There have been layoffs, staff reshufflings, and more editorial employees getting hired than fired. Then the bottom seemed to really drop out. First in 2010, the company was forced to sell off its historic landmark office building in downtown Chicago, designed by African-American architect John Warren Moutoussamy, and which still is the only office building in downtown Chicago designed by a black architect.
Then in 2015 the company announced that it was putting its entire legendary photo archive up for sale – an extensive library that chronicles practically the entire political, social and cultural history of African-Americans over the past 72 years. And last year, the company was finally sold to an Austin, TX-based financial group called ClearView for an undisclosed amount, and renamed Ebony Media.
However, that didn’t solve all the company’s problems. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that several freelance writers for the magazine and website took to social media to criticize the company for not paying them for several months, for the work that they performed, and were forced to go public, surely to the extreme embarrassment of the company.
But the situation is getting even worse. Very quietly, on Thursday, it was announced that the company was laying off at least 12 people from its editorial board, and another one-third of its writing staff in an “overall effort to streamline our operations and workforce to meet the demands of an increasingly fragmented media and digital landscape,” the magazine said in a public statement.
However, in a surprise development also revealed publicly on Thursday, powerhouse Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) has signed Ebony Media as a client, with the goal being to “expand its current print and digital footprint, enhance the brand and utilize the magazines’ over 70 years of archival content.”
According to Willard Jackson, group vice chairman of the Clear View Group, the arrangement with WME means that “at the heart of publishing is the curation and telling of great stories. This concept is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago when our iconic magazines were founded. Our partnership with WME aligns with the growth plans and transformation CVG envisions for Ebony Media Operations.”
So what does all that corporate speak really mean in plain English? One person who has figured that out is Eric Easter, former Ebony magazine VP Entertainment/Chief Digital Strategist and now CEO of BLQBOX Digital Studios, who said publicly on Friday about the layoffs and the WME agreement that, “they are tying their future to Hollywood, and the notion that, embedded in all those archives are stories that they can profit from. That’s always been a goal, but it’s a very long term strategy that relies heavily on places like Netflix and Amazon greenlighting those stories, which is no guarantee”.
But he cautioned: “After that, Ebony has to realize that the stories they ran are not necessarily stories they own, but certainly there are the basics of stories that can be fictionalized and dramatized, then monetized. But again, a really long term play.”
Easter adds that, what is more realistic is that Ebony Media “becomes an event and TV/film production company,” and that “WME creates yet another awards show, attaches some celebrities, then Ebony becomes more of an events company that also happens to publish”.
If what Easter says is true, then what this means is that Ebony will eventually cease to be a publishing company, and Ebony/Jet will become not much more than a memory and a rich history legacy will soon be no more.
A sad sign of the times.