VISUAL JOURNALIST PEDRO VEGA, JR. had his resignation letter ready. It was dated May 5, a Friday. Ebony still owed him about $10,000 for work he had done as a freelance designer before he joined the staff full-time as creative director in February, trusting the magazine would make him whole, Vega tells CJR.
But on May 4, Vega got a call from the human resources division at Clear View Group, the entirely black-owned Texas-based private equity firm that bought Ebony last year. Ebony was “restructuring,” Vega was told, and he would no longer have a job. He called his boss, Editor in Chief Kyra Kyles, who told him she didn’t know what was going down.
By Friday, the day Vega had planned to resign, the Chicago Tribune reported Ebony was laying off almost a third of its editorial staff and downsizing its Chicago headquarters to consolidate editorial operations in Los Angeles with sister publication Jet.
Vega is one of the lucky ones; he has since been paid the $10,000. But plenty of his fellow journalists who worked for the magazine, myself included, are still awaiting checks. More than a dozen writers, most of them black, have broadcast the company’s mistreatment of freelancers on Twitter using the hashtag #EbonyOwes, sharing stories of ignored calls and excuses from Ebony’s accounts-payable department. Fourteen such writers have enlisted the National Writers Union, an industry association representing freelance journalists, to go after Ebony to recover $30,000 the magazine owes them collectively.
Many journalists say their ordeal has been distinctly painful because of their reverence and love for the 72-year-old Ebony brand, which has struggled to retain its relevance in the digital age and among younger audiences. They suspect the publication’s new owners may be taking advantage of their loyalty to the legendary magazine. Adding insult to injury, Ebony’s Twitter account has blocked many of its unpaid writers. “This company is riding a legacy,” Vega tells CJR, “and I don’t know how long you can ride a legacy.”
CJR tracked down Clear View co-founder Willard Jackson via Facebook after several calls and emails to Jackson and other executives went unanswered. In an exclusive interview Saturday, and via a series of text messages Monday, Jackson blamed the magazine’s deep problems on prior ownership. (Johnson Publishing, the family company that owned the title from the beginning, said it wanted out of the publishing business.) Jackson added that Ebony had been slow to shift its focus online and still lacks what he calls “a robust digital platform.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s gotten to this point with these freelancers,” says Jackson. “But these freelancers, these guys—and ladies—we work with them a lot and we’re going to continue to. They will absolutely be paid in short order here.”
In the Saturday interview, Jackson insisted delays in payments had nothing to do with the company’s finances. But a company statement released over the weekend said that its freelance budget would be raised to prevent future mishaps.
On Monday, when CJR reached out again, Jackson responded via text message: “Prioritizing of the cash flow from the business to cover all the overhead and expenses is what we’ve had to address. That’s why payments have been delayed and that’s also what prompted the layoffs and downsizing.” He declined to discuss his privately held company’s financials in detail.
Jackson says Ebony is the top African American brand in the world, and garners extraordinary loyalty from its base.
He’s right, of course. A lot of black people love Ebony. But love only goes so far for the journalists who make it happen, especially when the object of your affection is slow to cut you a check.
“We’re going to get them paid,” National Writers Union President Larry Goldbetter vows in an interview with CJR. “But the biggest thing really isn’t so much what can we do for them. It’s what they’re doing—standing up together. It’s very easy for a publisher or company to blow people off individually, but it’s a whole different dynamic when they stand up together.”
— Baratunde (@baratunde) May 31, 2017
Goldbetter has no plans to ease up the pressure on the magazine, despite what he described in an interview with CJR as a productive weekend phone call with management. “They told us basically that they intend to pay off everybody within 30 days of the first contact we had two days ago, on Wednesday, so within the month of June.” The bad news, he said, is that “it was very vague, and there was no date for the first check.”
“Why didn’t they cut that check today?” he says.
Liz Dwyer, a Los Angeles-based journalist, is one of the writers who has connected with the union to fight for payments from Ebony. She wrote three stories for the magazine’s February issue about how black Americans can respond to the presidency of Donald Trump, and says she hasn’t been paid for any of them. She’s “had to harass a publication to be paid” in the past, but with Ebony, she fears that talented black journalists, whether long in the tooth or cub reporters, may be hurt in their pockets and morale, and give up on their journalism dreams.
“If they’re saying, ‘You know what, I actually can’t hang on as a freelancer until I get a staff job,’ or ‘Maybe I should switch to public relations,’ or ‘Maybe I should go try to get a job in the communications office at my local college,’ our newsrooms and our publications are losing out on their perspective and their voice,” Dwyer says.
CJR reached out to several other members of Ebony’s management team for this story. The other co-founder of Clear View, Michael Gibson, did not respond to several emails and calls. Neither did Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of Ebony’s founder, who was promoted to CEO of Ebony Media in March, nor Tracy Ferguson, the editor in chief now at the helm of Ebony and Jet.
SOURCE: Adeshina Emmanuel
Columbia Journalism Review