By Erick Johnson
The magazine that graced the coffee tables of millions of Black homes is gone. So is parent company, Johnson Publishing Company. Now, Ebony’s website has vanished from the world wide web.
It’s the 75th anniversary of Ebony Magazine, but will there be a celebration or a funeral with few mourners in this age of social distancing?
After years of decline, lawsuits, settlements, unpaid debts, missed paychecks and layoffs, are Ebony and Jet gone for good?
Unreturned emails. Unanswered questions. Hardly anyone from Ebony and Jet is talking.
Its death has been prematurely reported, but with no magazine and no website, is it finally over for the iconic Black empire?
For more than 20 years, Ebony’s digital platform has strived to keep America’s groundbreaking Black magazine relevant, and the legacy of its founder, John H. Johnson, alive.
But on Thursday, March 26, the Crusader was unable to access ebony.com. Readers would get a message on a white screen that said, “The site you were looking for couldn’t be found.”
The same message would appear when readers clicked on links to any story on the internet.
On Tuesday, the Crusader spoke to Sabrina Taylor, a journalist whose “Ebony Power 100,” about America’s Black media leaders was published this month on the magazine’s website.
Taylor told the Crusader that the website would be back up the next day, but that didn’t happen on Wednesday, April Fools’ Day. She also promised to email the Crusader a statement. When that didn’t happen, the Crusader sent Taylor a follow-up text message. Taylor never responded. The website was still down on Friday, April 3.
During the initial conversation, Taylor said there were a “lot of issues going,” but didn’t elaborate.
Michael Gibson, co-chairman and founder of Clear View Group, has seldom made comments about Ebony’s problems, citing his company’s “policy of not commenting on any employment practices or issues.”
Sources tell the Crusader that Ebony had not paid its remaining five-member digital web staff. They kept the website going with several stories since June 2019. At that time, several media outlets reported that Ebony Media closed for good by laying off its remaining staff members after they walked out when the company couldn’t make payroll.
Ebony Media, the company that runs Ebony and Jet, never released a statement about the layoffs, but the damage to the quality of Ebony’s digital platform began to show with very few new stories.
In the past six months, Ebony’s website has struggled to produce fresh stories and content that harks back to its glory days.
A story about the Ebony Foundation and another one about Black college queens remained the top stories on the website for weeks. One of the last stories on Ebony’s website before it went down was an interview with Tyler Perry by author and former Ebony journalist Margena Christian.
With no magazine and no website, questions remain whether Ebony will celebrate its 75th anniversary. When Ebony’s website was up and running, it did not mention any plans to celebrate the milestone.
For its 50th anniversary, Ebony hosted a two-hour televised special on ABC in November 1995. Titled, “Celebrate the Dream-50 Years of Ebony,” the show featured Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Ossie Davis, Luther Vandross and many other prominent Black figures.
It was a big 50th birthday bash where they reminisced about the stories and achievements that defined Ebony as the nation’s preeminent Black magazine.
That same year, Ebony published a special 50th anniversary issue featuring General Colin Powell with his wife, Alma, on the front cover.
John H. Johnson created the magazine in 1945 while working in the Supreme Life Insurance building on 35th and King Drive in Bronzeville. The magazine would eventually become the flagship publication of Johnson Publishing Company.
Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, took over the company when her father died in 2005.
In 2010, Rice sold the company’s headquarters to Columbia College, which sold it to 3L Real Estate in 2016.
In 2014, Jet magazine ended its print edition.
Capping years of decline, last year, Johnson Publishing filed bankruptcy in May and sold its vast photo archives for $30 million to a group of philanthropic foundations.
Rice sold Ebony and Jet in 2016 to Clear View Group, which, at the time, had no experience in media and publishing.
Earlier this month, Johnson Publishing reached a $500,000 settlement in a defamation lawsuit filed by the family of two Georgia high school students. The family alleged the magazine, in a series of articles in 2014, falsely implicated the students in the mysterious death of a Black classmate in 2013.
Under Clear View Group, both magazines continued to decline, experiencing staff and editorial problems.
Clear View Group suspended Ebony magazine’s print edition on May 24. Four days later, the company reportedly held a town hall meeting and told staffers they were safe.
In June2019, seven members were reportedly fired after they walked out when the company sent out a memo informing staffers that their pay for the period ending May 31 would be delayed because of a “delay in receiving capital” that week.
Employees reportedly said they were “rubbing pennies together” to make ends meet when they were laid off. One ex-staffer even reportedly claimed her company-sponsored retirement account might have been shortchanged.
In 2017, the National Writers Union filed a lawsuit against Ebony Media Group and CVG, which eventually agreed to pay 44 freelancers $80,000 for their work that had long been published.
At one point, Rice was CEO of Ebony Media under Clear View Group ownership, but eventually left saying the quality of Ebony no longer met the standards set by her father.