Monday, November 23, 2009

Black media’s new world re-order

The world of media is in a profound state of flux right now. Many will even say it’s in trouble. Down is up, green is red; the bloviated dynasties of old media have been forced to cope with change thrust upon them by the learned rabble, who’ve managed to do their own deals with the moneychangers outside the fortress walls. Now the great unwashed are pulling down the drawbridge. Yea, verily, all bets are off.

The New York Times, which seems to make per-copy price increases at least a semi-regular thing, has sold much of itself to a Mexican billionaire. The News Corporation empire of master of the dark arts Rupert Murdoch seems to be in a holding pattern, as it grapples with mountains of debt and grassroots protest against its very style of editorial judgment. Even the white-shoe media world of Condé Nast is shaky with the closure of two magazines, layoffs and belt-tightening turmoil (subscribers to Wired magazine know this all too well: now we’re forced to contend with no fewer than four of those annoying blow-in get-a-subscription cards that fall to the floor with every issue).

So it goes without saying that the same thing’s true for black media. Buoyed by the dawn of the Obama administration and the prospect of an elevation in the profile of African American journalists, black media has been making its own adjustments to the current economy. In the process, it seems, there’s a new order taking shape, one that’s roughly analogous to the changes in the wider mediasphere. And it’s just getting started.

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The shakeout in black media is distilled by the challenges facing Ebony Magazine, truly the granddady of ‘em all. Launched in 1942 on a shoestring by John H. Johnson, Ebony became the voice of a black America very much finding its voice. The magazine’s urbane formula of racial uplilft and celebrations of conspicuous consumption dovetailed with the emotional dictates of the civil rights movement.

Johnnie L. Roberts, in Newsweek, reported in September that Johnson Publishing Company would entertain serious offers for Ebony magazine.
“Johnson Publishing’s chairman and CEO, Linda Johnson Rice, has reached what must have been an agonizing decision: Johnson Publishing is seeking a buyer or investor for its flagship publication, Ebony, in an effort aimed at securing the survival of the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to African-American life. It’s unclear whether the company’s other properties, including Jet, would be part of a possible sale.

“According to media and investment executives familiar with the developments, Chicago-based Rice, the daughter of Ebony’s legendary founder, the late John H. Johnson, has approached, among others, Time Inc., Viacom, and private investors that include buyout firms.”


The most immediate reason is Ebony’s sad decline in advertising revenue. Newsweek’s breakdown:
"… Ebony's advertising pages and ad revenues have declined in each of the last three years, even during periods when the industry was flat to positive. Among the 243 magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau, ad pages plunged an average of 28 percent, with revenues falling by 21 percent, in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier. But Ebony's decline was sharper, as advertising dived almost 35 percent, dragging revenues down almost 32 percent, to $18.8 million from 2008's $27.7 million. And the deterioration of Jet magazine, Ebony's sister publication, was even more severe—about 40 percent in ad pages and revenues.”

For others, though, Ebony’s fall from grace has as much to do with the era in which it attempts to survive. Mark Reynolds, a writer and African American scholar and journalist, wrote of Ebony’s decline in a Nov. 23 PopMatters essay:
”For years it had been the flagship media brand of black pop culture, proving to the world (including, crucially, black folk themselves) that black was indeed beautiful. But by the turn of the new millennium, that lesson was less in need of telling, especially with newer brands like Vibe speaking to contemporary life with a style and energy Ebony never bothered to muster. In a world of designer restaurants and celebrity chefs, Ebony was the staid family diner whose tried-and-true dishes were showing their age at long last, a fact borne out by circulation figures already on the downswing…”

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Another venerable title took a hit. Essence.com, the Web adjunct of the celebrated black women’s magazine, suffered collateral damage in the wake of recent layoffs at Time Inc., Essence’s parent company.

The magazine lost 18 people, including (according to Gawker) the entire online editorial team, in early November. The Essence massacre was part of a broad and deep wave of cuts at other magazines owned by Time Inc., publishing arm of Time Warner. The purge is set to continue at least until the end of the month.

However much it saves on the short-term bottom line, these nonstop firings really amount to being serious deletions from the institutional hard drives of some of America’s most widely-read magazines, from Time to Sports Illustrated to People and more besides. When the cuts at Time Warner are over, what’s left but the shell of a magazine, one without the names and talents people used to pay for?

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Vibe, it seems, may have dodged a bullet. The magazine started by Quincy Jones in 1993 — once the journal that explained hiphop and rap to a wider audience, and whose early journalism on the subject had gravitas in the culture — is to resume publication next month after a retooling started in August. The new Vibe will reportedly be Web-centric.

“A group led by the private equity firm InterMedia Partners and its luxury magazine publisher, Uptown Media, has reached an agreement to acquire Vibe and its Web site,” The Wall Street Journal reported in August. “They intend to bring out the print edition only at the end of the year and then publish it quarterly rather than monthly, possibly increasing the frequency after 2010.”

Reynolds, wrote of his own experience at Vibe over a period of years in that Nov. 23 PopMatters essay, charting the decline of Vibe’s punch and authority:
”… the magazine’s editorial quality had declined precipitously. The feature articles were paint-by-numbers shovelware straight outta the entertainment-industrial complex, with little of the flair or shock of the new that characterized the first few years of Vibe’s run. The in-depth features that dove deeper into other aspects of the burgeoning urban-pop culture became fewer and farther between. In the pages of Vibe, hip-hop became hip-pop, and made for considerably less interesting reading in the process.”

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Other print magazines seem poised to fill the void, at least one coming from an unexpected place in a time when the conventional wisdom had long since sounded the death knell for print magazines. Arise, self-described on its Web site as “the first global magazine dedicated to achievements in African fashion, music, culture and polity,” is published by ThisDay Newspaper Group, a Nigerian-based company with publications there and in London and South Africa. Since launching in February, the beautiful, coffeetable-ready magazine has aroused a modicum of interest in the States (again, blame the crowded media marketplace for that).

For Reynolds, who discovered it in Chicago, there’s a lot to like. “No starving babies, no corrupt politicians here: this [is] the voice of a new African generation staking its claim in the post-modern global marketplace. Arise, indeed.”

But for all of the early success for Arise — and here’s hoping for a very long and successful run — with a reported per-copy price of $12, the publisher has set the bar way high for achieving any deep penetration at American newsstands. When titles of higher circulation are offered to the public at a fraction of that price and still aren’t selling, Arise’s contrarian strategy may face challenges not fully anticipated in the current economy. It can’t be overlooked: You undercut your ability to matter to people if they can’t afford to read you.

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The online space has seen a bumper crop of news and commentary Web sites in the past 20-odd months or so. The Root, launched by Dr. Henry Louis Gates and The Washington Post in January 2008, has a wide range of contributors weighing in on black news and culture. TheLoop21, launched in Los Angeles the same year, offers a West Coast perspective on life and culture for a younger black demographic. And TheGrio, launched in June 2009 by NBC News and Three Part Media LLC, takes a video-centric approach to newsgathering, and includes essays and commentary by black writers.

But it’s not all gravy in the ‘Net world. Essence bit the bullet. At almost the same time, Richard Prince’s reliable Journal-Isms column reported that Sheryl Huggins Salomon, managing editor of AOL Black Voices, was laid off Nov. 10 as AOL cut hers and about 100 other positions — getting ready, no doubt, for AOL’s debut as a freestanding (or free-falling) independent company in December.

The old saying for black people generally — when the nation as a whole catches a cold, black folks get pneumonia — is likely to be just as true for elements of black media struggling to make a way, create an original voice and develop a following in a 21st-century bazaar that’s getting mighty crowded.

Image credits: Arise covers: © 2009 ThisDay Newspaper Group. Essence cover: © 2009 Essence Communications. Ebony cover: © 2008 Johnson Publishing Company. Vibe cover: © 2009 Vibe Lifestyle Network LLC. The Root homepage: © 2009 Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive.

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