The Essence Of A Breakup

When Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith cut a deal with AOL Time Warner two years ago, they were offered the promise of fresh capital and new markets for the leading black women's magazine. Little did they know it would mean the split of a 32-year-old business partnership and a fight for the soul of an institution.

magazines, two titles that compete with Essence, says that such criticisms leveled at the partnership and the subsequent management changes are without merit. “If you say only black people should run black magazines then you have to say the contrary — only white people can run white publications. There are more mainstream magazines than there will ever be black magazines so that thinking would be detrimental in the long run,” he says. “Owner[ship] and editorial [leadership are] separate. Editorial [leadership] should be done by people who have an affinity and passion for the audience they are dealing with. Now the owners don’t have to do that. In an ideal world, [it would be great] to have a black-owned and black-edited magazine speaking to a black audience. But that model is tough to follow in today’s environment.”

One ex-employee of Essence holds a more practical view of the round of dismissals. “They’re basically doing what any other corporation does when new management comes into place,” says LaJeanna McKnight, who worked as merchandising manager for Essence until last December, “They want to bring in people they have relationships with.” McKnight was identified as one of Ad Age’s Women To Watch in 2000.

But some believe new management will translate into a watered-down editorial focus. In Columbia University’s New York Review of Magazines, Newsday Assistant Managing Editor and columnist Les Payne said: “You cannot go to bed with an 800-pound gorilla and not expect things to change. At the very least the bed will tilt.”

Others share that view. “I’ve seen editorial changes in Essence; there’s more fashion in it, less human interest, and fewer compelling stories on black women’s issues,” says N’Digo’s Hartman, who has always been a fan of the positive images reflected in Essence’s editorial and advertising. Ebanks says Essence will continue to “do what we have been doing, which is speaking directly to black women.”

Operating in one of the toughest environments for magazines, Essence is more than holding its own. It faces competition from such publications as Heart & Soul, Honey, and O, the ultra-successful joint venture between the Hearst Magazine Group and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Inc. (No. 9 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with gross sales of $285 million). Asserts Ebanks: “Nearly 15% of all black women subscribe to Essence [and] one in three African American women read [it]. It is unheard of to have the level of penetration Essence has.”

WILL ESSENCE STAY BLACK-OWNED?
Lewis, Taylor, and Ebanks are focusing on how to further leverage the relationship with AOL Time Warner, which just a couple of months ago was dealing with its own management turmoil as well as a flagging stock price. In fact, Lewis says the company will continue to benefit from its relationship with AOL Time Warner’s Richard D. Parsons, the first African American CEO of the media monolith, and Logan, who recently became chairman of the newly created Media and Communications Group when COO Robert Pittman was ousted. Besides achieving critical cost savings in such areas as printing

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