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.

and production, Lewis seeks to expand the franchise through the acquisition of new publications or related businesses. “We’re in a virtual candy store,” he quips. “We haven’t taken full advantage of it yet.”

Will Essence follow the path of BET Holdings, which became a unit of Viacom when it was acquired for $3 billion two years ago? “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” asserts Lewis. “Right now, I’m focusing on how we can expand this company.”

In the end, it comes down to one question: Can a black company coexist with its corporate partner and stay true to its mission? In the coming years, Essence’s continuing drama may provide the answer.

– Additional reporting by Sonia Alleyne, Alan Hughes, Matthew S. Scott & Sakina P. Spruell

The Time for Essence

  • 1969: Edward Lewis, Clarence Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth, and Jonathan Blount form the Hollingsworth Group, the parent company of Essence magazine.
  • 1970: The first issue hits newsstands in May. The press run was for 250,000 copies.
  • 1971: Blount and Hollingsworth leave Essence after a dispute.
  • 1973: Essence Communications appears on the first BE 100S list at No. 63 with gross sales of $2 million.
  • 1976: Blount and Hollingsworth sue to regain control of the company.
  • 1978: Blount and Hollingsworth’s case is thrown out of court.
  • 1981: Susan Taylor, the magazine’s fashion editor, is named editor-in-chief. She becomes the face and voice of the magazine for the next 20 years.
  • 1984: Smith and Lewis start Essence By Mail, which puts the company into the mail-order retail business. Essence launches a nationally syndicated TV show.
  • 1987: The company holds the first Essence Achievement Awards, an annual televised salute to the subjects who have appeared in the magazine.
  • 1995: Essence launches the highly successful music festival, a three-day event that this year drew more than 200,000 attendees.
  • 1996: Smith and Lewis develop Essence Entertainment, the division that houses the company’s music festival, awards show, and music label. Essence also teams with Latin publisher Christy Haubegger to launch Latina, a bilingual, women’s lifestyle publication.
  • 2000: Smith and Lewis enter into a deal with AOL Time Warner, giving it 49% ownership of Essence Communications.
  • 2001: Michelle Ebanks, a former Time Inc. vice president, becomes group publisher of Essence magazine. Smith assumes the role of CEO of Essence Entertainment.
  • 2002: Smith resigns from Essence, ending one of the longest marriages in b
    lack business.
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