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Can Ebony survive? 5 questions for black media in the digital age…

September 30, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( The black journalism students here at Syracuse often come to me to find out how the industry works. They sometimes instinctively wonder if their professors’ stories about being in a CBS newsroom in 1982 are going to help them survive in a world run by Twitter, Myspace and Facebook. The answer is a resounding “probably not.”

While respecting the journalism professors teaching their classes, I simply use examples like Ebony Magazine to help them realize that black media is changing, and sites like,, and, are examples of how black media has evolved. In fact, a journalist who doesn’t understand technology and business models is in danger of starting his/her career as a dinosaur.

When it comes to recent reports about Ebony Magazine being offered for sale, I admit that I was saddened, but not surprised. The Ebony Fashion Fair has become one of the most celebrated events in black America, and the magazine has been nothing less than a tremendous source of national pride since its creation in 1945. But in the age of the web, oversized bureaucracies can be crushed under the weight of their own arrogance. Bloated payrolls, pompous corporate functions and a sense of entitlement make them easy prey for quick, hungry and rapidly evolving competition.

In spite of the tremendous love we have for Ebony/Jet, the truth must be confronted when realizing that it is what radio was to TV or what the train was to the airplane. Like radios and trains, there is still a place for print media, but that role is no longer dominant. The current economic climate only accelerated the inevitable, since advertisers were eventually going to stop spending $50,000 for magazine ads when they can buy the same number of eyeballs for $5,000 or less.

I present the following 5 questions I’d like to ask out loud about both Ebony Magazine and the state of African American media:

    1) Why did Ebony/Jet seem to turn a blind eye toward its growing obsolescence? Ebony Magazine had become the Black Pope of American media: Well respected, but not taken seriously. The cold, hard truth is that when people open a copy of Ebony Magazine, they risk being bored to death by page two. People subscribe out of respect, not because they expect to get good information.

    Advertisements flood the eyeballs, while the articles can be redundant and uninformative. When my friends open a copy of Jet Magazine (Ebony’s sister publication), they search for the Beauty of the Week and not much more. The model of news coverage for Jet Magazine was powerful and effective until this quiet little thing called “The Internet” snuck in and undermined the value of week old snippets of black celebrity gossip.

    2) Where the heck was Ebony’s Internet presence? Essence Magazine unleashed an avalanche of energy to build their online platform, as did a few other members of black media. Ebony/Jet seemed to remain fixated on a world in which they were too powerful to have to pay attention to what happened beyond the walls of their giant building in downtown Chicago. The Internet was the media gold rush of the new millennium: if you stayed home, you soon found out that the gold was not going to come find you. In finance, we teach that capital should be put to its best available use, so any excess cash in the company should have been used to develop and market the company’s online platforms.

    3) Who’s your daddy? Most black media is now owned by larger, stronger, corporate partners with bigger war chests. It is my hope that one day, independent black media can thrive and remain profitable. But not only does Ebony/Jet have to seek out a rescue buyer, it has also made itself into a relatively undesirable company to purchase. There’s nothing worse than putting a poorly run firm on the market during an economic downturn. Even if a ship is sinking, it should be steered in a way that minimizes additional damage. I am curious to see if anyone will be willing to buy Ebony/Jet and fix the problems that plague the company. One need only look as far as many of our HBCUs to see that it’s difficult to step in and defy traditional operating procedure.

    4) What is the future of black media? My conversations with the head of African American Media for the Obama Administration led me to sense frustration on their part when it comes to figuring out exactly what will remain after the seismic shift in African American media platforms is complete. The daily community papers are gone, major print media outlets are dying by the second, and the Internet has become full of tiny, fragmented outlets which reach only a few hundred readers per day. Perhaps one day, some of this will make sense, and African Americans will have reliable ways to get messages out to our people.

    5) Can Obama help with the black media problem? By reducing the ability of companies like Clear Channel to swoop in and buy every radio station in America, we might be able to reopen the door to black media ownership in America. While the Internet has created opportunities for the voiceless to be heard, the truth is that black radio and print have been put at serious risk. The president and the FCC can contribute to a solution to this important problem by making media diversity a priority.

The power of media should not be controlled by a few major corporations; we should all have a piece of this dream.

Written By Dr. Boyce Watkins

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