Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Should black folks save Ebony and Jet magazine?


This weekend, I received the following breathless entreaty through a listserv that I subscribe to:


Ebony/Jet Magazine on The Verge of Financial Collaspse (J P)
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 07:45:31 -0400

One of the most notable permanent fixtures in every black household (back in the days), was the Ebony and Jet magazine. If you wanted to learn about your history, the plight of Black America, current issues facing Black Americans, how the political process of America affects you, how politics works, who the hottest actors were, what time a particular black television show aired, who got married recently, who were the most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in your town, what cities had black mayors, police chiefs, school superintendents, how to register to Vote, what cars offer the best value for the buck, who employed black Americans, how to apply for college scholarships, etc., more than likely, Ebony or Jet magazine could help you find answers to those questions.

We have recently been informed that the Johnson Publishing Company is currently going through a financial crisis. The company is attempting a reorganization in order to survive. Many people have already lost their jobs with a company that has employed thousands of black Americans during the course of its existence.

In order to support this effort to save our magazine, my friends and myself have pledged to get a subscription to both Ebony and Jet magazine, starting with one year. We are urging every other club member who comes across this plea to do the same. Please post, repost, and post again, to any blog that you may own or support.

Please email this to every person that you know, regardless of their background. Let them know that Ebony and Jet magazines have been part of the black American culture for three quarters of a century, and that there is a lot that they can learn about black American culture from reading them.

We are currently discussing the idea of throwing an Ebony/Jet Party, where people can eat, drink, and sign up for their subscription on the spot. Please spread this idea around to all that you know. Your Sororities, Fraternities, Lodges, VFW Posts, Churches, Civic Groups, Block Clubs, Caps Meetings, Book Clubs, etc.

It would be a crying shame, to lose our historic magazine, during the same year of such an historic event as the election of our first black President of the United States.

Now, like a lot of other black people, I grew up with Ebony and Jet magazines on the family coffee table. I remember fondly sitting in the brown recliner in my grandparents' back room reading a then-oversized Ebony with Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor on it. (Don't know why I specifically recall that issue of the magazine, but for some reason it is one that remains etched in my mind.) I say this to illustrate that these magazines are part of my cultural history. Nevertheless, when I read the missive above, my first thought (after wondering if the message-writer understands that subscriptions generally account for far less of a publication's revenue than advertising does) was..."Meh." I'm not so sure that Ebony and Jet, as they stand today, are institutions worth going to the mat for.

To be sure, John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson publishing empire that produces Ebony and Jet, represents an inspiring success story. When the 27-year-old entrepreneur launched Ebony in November 1945 (Jet was founded in 1951.), he did so in a climate of mainstreamed racial injustice. Black GIs, like my grandfather, were returning from fighting for "freedom" in World War II to find they were less than free at home in America. Real black voices and black life were obscured by stereotype in American media. Local black newspapers, such as another iconic Chicago publication, The Defender, and Johnson's magazines were among the few places where black people could see their lives and culture reflected and read news important to them. We mattered to these news and lifestyle outlets. Forget the New York Times, these were our publications of record.

Today, Ebony enjoys a circulation of more than 1.4 million, while Jet reaches nearly 1 million people each week. But I suspect neither magazine is as ubiquitous in the homes of my generation of black folks (GenX) as they were for my parents and grandparents. The truth is, like many Civil Rights-era institutions, both publications began feeling irrelevant a long time ago. Yes, black people still need someplace to see their lives and culture reflected and to read news important to them. (Today's media is much better in covering people of color, but far from perfect.) But are Ebony and Jet the go-to places for that anymore? No, because while black America has changed over the last 60-some years, these publications have seemed largely the same--like museum pieces. I think of them fondly (like my grandparents' old recliner in the back room), but emphatically not as publications-of-record.

An example of Johnson Publishing's out-of-touchness? Sunday at the neighborhood Wal-Mart, I picked up a Jet for the first time in forever, in preparation for this post. I wanted to know if it was still there. In an age when black women are fighting stereotyped images of ourselves as Jezebels, playthings and acoutrement for the latest hip hop star whose cuts are banging in the whips of white, teenage suburbanites--it couldn't still be there. But, yeah, centerspread, there it was--that paean to black woman thickitude--the Jet Beauty of the Week, a young, black woman in a teeny swimsuit giving sexy face. Is this what I'm supposed to rush to the battlements to save?

The forefront of the black communications revolution is now on the Web, where brothers and sisters are breaking news (Jena 6), championing causes and serving up provocative opinions. Ebony and Jet, I think, have failed to keep pace with a world where there is Ta-Nehisi Coates and What About Our Daughters and Racialicious and Aunt Jemima's Revenge and Womanist Musings and TransGriot and Something Within and Color of Change and Pam's House Blend and The Root and Black and Married with Kids, and, hell, Bossip. Today, black readers can get superior writing about politics, black life, marriage, parenting, sexuality, pop culture, identity, racism, sexism, spirituality, finance and a host of other issues, for free, everyday, all day, online. The topics covered (or not covered) by Ebony and Jet, the lack of depth in writing, the formats, the frickin beauty of the week, make these publications seem frozen in time, while the world speeds up around them.

Beyond all that, how is Johnson Publishing going to adjust to the new digital age? It's not the only print purveyor facing this question. Local newspapers across the country need to answer it too. America has changed the way it consumes information, and so far, print media hasn't found a profitable way to adapt. That's a shame, because we desperately need the Fourth Estate. We need in-depth reporting. Marginalized folks need these things more than most. God knows that black folks could use the shot to our collective self-esteem that Johnson Publishing's products offer. But taking extraordinary life-saving measures to rescue publications like Ebony and Jet is merely stalling the inevitable unless ailing publications put strategic plans in place to innovate and evolve.

Look, the older I get the more pieces of my past mean to me. (That's probably why I spent the weekend watching old episodes of "Columbo," "Quincy" and "MacMillan and Wife" on Netflix.) But nostalgia isn't enough reason for me to join the charge to save Ebony and Jet. All the Ebony/Jet parties in the world won't make a difference if these black cultural icons aren't making the changes necessary to save themselves.

22 comments:

Renee said...

I completely agree with you on this one. The problem is that Ebony and Jet fail to be relevant and this can be costly when Americans can log on and get all of the information and opinions in seconds. I have not been a big reader of either magazine and in fact look to blogs when I want good commentary on the AA community. If Ebony and Jet want out support they need to give us a reason to do so other than citing the fact that they have been around for a long time.

Da Bee's Knees said...

Tami,

When I read the title of this post, I chuckled. Of course I thought of the literal "saving" the magazines in a heap under the coffee table. And I admit, I giggled.

But after reading your piece. I'm not giggling. I am sobered by the truth that you have written. You are absolutely correct. If Ebony and Jet cannot ACCURATELY reflect the current lives most Black folk in America, will not give up the misogynistic centerfolds that encourage disrespect of Black womanhood and will not include the most revelant voices in the Black community today found blogging....they don't deserve to be saved.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Why are we so willing to let go of things that mean something to us? Can you imagine White women letting Vogue go under? I'm pretty sure they would rally to save it.

I know that Ebony and Jet are not perfect but I'm hoping that they will evolve over time. Linda Johnson-Rice seems like a forward looking woman and I think she will make both more relevant as time goes on.

Also I have read some pretty interesting pieces in Ebony over the last few years. So I wouldn't call it totally irrelevant.

Regarding Jets centerfold; I don't really know what's up with that but you listed Bossip as being relevant, have you seen the stuff on there?

Maybe I'm alone in this but I don't want Ebony/ Jet to go away and I might subscribe to one of them or even both if I feel it will help.

Tami said...

MDC!

Where ya been, girl?!

I disagree about the Vogue thing. A bunch of beloved and iconic "white" magazines have bit the dust in the modern age. Look at Life magazine and its struggle to survive. I submit that Ebony and Jet just doesn't mean the same thing to the black community today that it did back in the day. What responsiblity does a magazine have to evolve to keep the readership it wants?

Just to clarify, the point I was making about Bossip wasn't about relevancy. I've written about how a lot of the stuff on there is abhorrent. The point I was trying to make is that where once Ebony and Jet were the only places to read about black celebrities (and the stuff those other blogs I listed cover), the Web is littered with popular blogs that do what they do, sometimes better and in a more timely way. Bossip was probably a bad example, because while I enjoy the other blogs I listed, that one...not so much.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

No it's not our responsibility to save Ebony and definitely not Jet. They need to get with the times, redo their entire layout and stop publishing magazines that look like something a 3rd grader would do. Their content is also lacking. I see they'll keep trying to put the Obamas on their covers to sell but that's not going to be enough.

Anonymous said...

All magazines face the world of Internet stuff these days, but I was sad to hear about these two new endangered magazines.

it's sad to see things go--I had a good cry about all the women's bookstores that have gone under in the last 5 years, and heck, the last episodes of ER are coming to an end! Boo hoo--maybe we need Netmagazines to recover the old issues the way Netflicks recovers old "Quincy" episodes :-)

Mes Deux Cents said...

Tami,

I'm still around, I'm just not online as much as I used to be.

Monica Roberts said...

I've got mixed emotions about it.

As a historian, I don't like the idea of losing Ebony and Jet.

But on the other hand both those magazines have been behind the curve for a while in terms of developments inside the AA GLBT community, something I've long complained about on TransGriot.

It's sad when Isis got more love in white owned magazines than she did in our iconic Black ones (and ESSENCE falls in that category as well).

I'm for giving Linda Johnson Rice the help she needs and an ultimatum. Do a better job of inclusive coverage in the AA community.

Da Bee's Knees said...

Monica,

You might just have something there. You made me re-think. An ultimatum may be in order. I have re-considered.

Instead of throwing in the towel, I think I will send a letter to Ms. Johnson Rice and make a limited committed subscription of a year.

Perhaps this time next year, we can have something that we as a community can rightfully be proud of.

Anonymous said...

Bossip is not black-owned, and there are fair amounts of racist and misogynist posts on the site.

QX said...

Misogynist? Behind the times? What magazines are some of you talking about?

Granted, EBONY and JET are not as cutting edge as they used to be; after all, what magazine is truly cutting edge in the Age of the Internet? But the two publications are nowhere near as irrelevant or as damaging are some people are making them out to be. Moreover, I suspect that if the magazines disappeared, people would miss them more than they let on.

Bottom line: Ebony, Jet, Essence and Black Enterprise are still the four crown jewels of African-American magazines, and they should be supported as such.

Finally, if you have a problem with the ONE PAGE that contains the Jet Beauty of the Week, just skip it.

postpostracial said...

I have hopes that under new(er) management Ebony will continue to evolve, and so my vote would be to "save" it. As big a loss as the coverage--and permanent, archival record of coverage (unlike the Internet sources you mentioned)--of Black life and culture would be the loss of opportunities for Black writers and photographers.

I recently looked at an issue of Ebony after not having seen it in ages and was actually pleasantly surprised. The writing was much better than I had seen and the articles went in more depth than I remembered.

Some facets of the magazine that to some extent have come to define it definitely need to be changed. Like Jet's centerfold, Ebony's comic page with it's parade of Black stereotypes needs to go and never come back. (Unless, that is, it develops into a page that contains relevant political comics or features strips by up-and-coming Black comic strip artists.) The focus on wealthy Black and all the "stuff" they've got has got to go and never come back.

I think it is possible for some of our institutions to change with the times and continue being relevant.

glory said...

I grew up reading Ebony and Jet - thank God my mom kept subscribing as I was growing up. But I stopped reading not long after my reading comprehension skills and interests outpaced those magazines. I subscribe to Black Enterprise now, and bought a gift subscription for my college aged cousin. I would be sad to Ebony and Jet go, but I think it's their responsibility to step it up.

Lamar @ Blackandmarriedwithkids.com said...

@Tami - Thanks for the nod in your article.

I can see where you are coming from. My general way of thinking is make me support you because you are good not just because you are black owned or have history. As a business you have to keep transforming and making yourself relevant.

Kiss my black ads said...

I'd hate to see it go but, I'm hoping for instant relevancy. I noticed they have digitized old issues that can now be found online in their entirety. They have already proved useful to me in my advertising business. My heart says stay, but my mind says grow!

Anonymous said...

you know, yall should really pick up an Ebony or a Jet. They actually have done well under the new management system. i'm the mag business, and really, compared to 5 years ago, they're much, much, much, much better.

this is not to say that they don't have further to go. that comics page is trash. And their web site is lacking in real reported stories.. everything there is opinion and i don't need that in my life.

however, ebony did two stories last year that stuck out to me. one was about this little black girl in chicago who was shot while playing double dutch or something. the other explained why so many koreans own black hair shops. that korean story piece was pretty damn deep and mostly about economics and it quoted a lot of koreans (!) I guess it would have to, huh?

i actually kept that article. heard mike baisden talking about it, so i went out and got it.

so they do have some good stuff in there, you just gotta search for it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a journalist who has written papers on the origin of black press: Black pubs popped up in an era of Jim Crow, often led by folks who were just regular people with a pen and a pad. This means they didn't always have training. When you have KKK hanging people daily, you don't need much skill - the news writes itself. But once that era left, your skill or lack thereof is exposed: Can you spin 1st, 2nd, 3rd day stories out of news happenings? Can you create features and series? Do you know when and where to expand coverage - and pull back? These are the types of things you learn in j-school. They're the types of things that everyday readers can't put their fingers on - but they know when they don't see it, because they put a publication down. Unfortunately, too many of our black pubs fit into this mold: Old ideas, recycled stories, even clip art. Hell, most of them are driven by celebrity interviews.

Black journalists have long ago abandoned sectors of the black media (not applauding this, but I'm saying) after seeing that it's jsut not evolving. Now black readers are doing the same. Frankly Vibe is a better example or sturdy writing than Eb - new ideas, following trends, etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

PS Re: the Korean hair story: That's old news. I wrote a national story for a white publication about the rising natural hair trend nealry two years ago. Where were these pubs?

Day late. Dollar short.

ColoredSpirit said...

Ebony and Jet have their place in Black life; past, current and future. Nothing stays the same, not even life itself. Relevance is relative. I would not ever pick the writer's movies as favorites; not relevant to me and not one movie labeled Black. What's relevant to one isn't relevant to another. Grow up, live life, find your relevance and recognize certain institutions in Black life have a place~perhaps revised, improved, changed~whatever you wanna call. There's place and space for it in your life.

Anonymous said...

To sound off on the Jet "Beauty of the Week" and, based upon this feature, debate whether or not the magazine is worth saving is absolutely juvenile. The magazines have both been instrumental in the civil rights struggle, which Tami chooses to put in the back of the bus over a faux-feminist tirade. (So typical of negroes to see only as far as the nose on the face.)

EBONY and Jet are victims of a lack of foresight by the founder and publisher and his kin to adapt the to times. The number one identified brand in America just recently branched out with a line of greeting cards, with furniture supposedly in the pipeline.

How about too little and way too late. There should have been EBONY/Jet cups, t-shirts, car accessories, etc. decades ago. And the greeting cards? Well, I think the "Mahogany" line stole JP's thunder on that years ago.

Consequently, the lack of diversification in its product line has left JP in the proverbial eggs in one basket. And given the state of the publishing industry...well, good luck.

They coulda been a contenda.

mauryand19th said...

Jet and Ebony are still very relevant. They carry information that is not carried elsewhere.

It is hard to diagnose the problem from the complaints.

Are the people who complain about relevance no longer interested in just black community news.

Maybe that's the reality of today, that race is less important to so many.

If that's the case, then Ebony and Jet are irrelevant and there are no changes that can save them.

Or is the complaint that Ebony and Jet are failing to provide the harder edged stories about jobs, neighborhood change, urban environment, legal justice and that inside them its all softball pieces?

Then it would be easy for the magazine to shift — they just need to get new reporters and writers and publish such stories.

But it's hard to tell.

mauryand19th

Anonymous said...

I have always subscribed to Ebony - even when I was in college and now I'm in the 40+ club. I never once thought about giving up my subscription. I do find the articles relevant and helpful. Yes Ebony should update things - website, social media etc and as a reader I will now send in suggestions. Ebony is the magazine that I will continue to subscribe and help to save. When all magazines are gone that give positive attention to AA - everyone will complain about so why not help save Ebony...

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