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Ebony Magazine’s Latest Celebrates Black Power…

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( In a year when the first African-American president in our nation’s history took office, it’s only fitting that Ebony magazine should celebrate black power with their December/January issue.

The Celebration issue, the magazine’s first, will be on newsstands Tuesday, Dec. 1st. There will be eight different cover options available to the public.

As you could guess, President Barack Obama is one of the eight. He’s joined by Venus and Serena Williams, Rev. Al Sharpton, Chris Rock, Queen Latifah, LeBron James, Wanda Sykes and Mo’Nique. While the celebrity covers offer a selection reflective of the realities of magazine publishing – i.e., celebrities sell – the “Power 150” list inside is a diverse group of African-American movers and shakers.

“In celebrating the many facets and faces of power in the African-American community, we showcased a wide range of intriguing people who will undoubtedly surprise and engage our audience,” said Chairman and CEO Linda Johnson Rice. “Our Power 150 list, featuring eight stunning covers, takes a close look at inspiring leaders who’ve made a remarkable difference on various levels.”

Ebony itself is hoping to make some power moves in 2010. The Chicago-based company, founded by John H. Johnson, has been in existence since 1945. Johnson’s empire began with Negro Digest in 1942, a compilation of information of interest to African-Americans. In just a few months, the circulation reached a whopping 50,000, and Ebony was born. Based on mainstream newsmagazines like Life (which it outlasted), Ebony and its sister publication, Jet, helped Johnson Publications become one of the first successful African-American owned magazine publishing empires.

Its emphasis on celebrity has earned both publications some detractors, but over the years, it’s also become one of the most enduring historical documents about the lives of African-Americans. Years of back issues have been scanned in their entirety and are now available on Google Books.

Despite its status as an African-American institution, this year has been a struggle for the company. Magazine revenues have been declining overall, and Ebony was already having some difficulty finding relevance with a younger, more hip-hop generation. An updated look and more hard-hitting articles unfortunately dovetailed with the industry downturn.

After 50 years, the magazine’s once-popular Ebony Fashion Fair fashion show was cancelled this year, due to a lack of corporate sponsorship.

According to a story earlier this fall, rumors abounded that the magazine was up for sale and that CEO Linda Johnson-Rice was negotiating a sale with Time, Inc. (which owns Essence) or Viacom, which owns Black Entertainment Television. For the record, neither Time Inc. nor Viacom would comment on any sale, and Johnson Publications simply issued a statement saying that the rumors of any sale are “incorrect with respect to Time and Viacom.”

According to the Newsweek article, Ebony’s ad revenue had been in decline for a few years, even before the current magazine crisis.

Magazine industry ad pages overall have declined an average of 28 percent, while in the first half of 2009, Ebony has declined over 30 percent and Jet over 40 percent. By the end of the year, the article states, Ebony’s ad pages had declined even further to over 40 percent.

But although a source said that Ebony is in serious trouble and that may be the case, it’s fair to say that the overall industry decline has resulted in similar bad news for many established, long running publications. Vibe magazine, for example, once a stalwart of the hip-hop generation, ceased publication earlier this year, but was quickly purchased and brought back to life by its second round of new ownership. And certainly any decline is relative, given that only Johnson Publications knows how much falling ad revenue has impacted profits, as opposed to operating costs.

In a reorganization earlier in the year, Ebony parted ways with some of its longtime editorial staff.

While announcing the special Ebony issue, Johnson Publications said that other changes were coming to the magazine in 2010. They are planning a re-launch campaign of all their properties, including digital, which has not traditionally been an area of focus for the brand.

“The Celebration issue is the first step forward in our evolving branding strategy,” says COO Anne Sempowski Ward. “[It] will help underscore our competitive edge and signal Ebony’s new direction. We are also incorporating feedback from consumers into our expanding brand and editorial platforms to provide broader and richer content from a distinctive point of view.”

Written By Tonya Pendleton

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