Should black folks save Ebony and Jet magazine?

By Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

This weekend, I received the following breathless entreaty through a listserv that I subscribe to:

Ebony/Jet Magazine on The Verge of Financial Collaspse (J P)
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 07:45:31 -0400

One of the most notable permanent fixtures in every black household (back in the days), was the Ebony and Jet magazine. If you wanted to learn about your history, the plight of Black America, current issues facing Black Americans, how the political process of America affects you, how politics works, who the hottest actors were, what time a particular black television show aired, who got married recently, who were the most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in your town, what cities had black mayors, police chiefs, school superintendents, how to register to Vote, what cars offer the best value for the buck, who employed black Americans, how to apply for college scholarships, etc., more than likely, Ebony or Jet magazine could help you find answers to those questions.

We have recently been informed that the Johnson Publishing Company is currently going through a financial crisis. The company is attempting a reorganization in order to survive. Many people have already lost their jobs with a company that has employed thousands of black Americans during the course of its existence.

In order to support this effort to save our magazine, my friends and myself have pledged to get a subscription to both Ebony and Jet magazine, starting with one year. We are urging every other club member who comes across this plea to do the same. Please post, repost, and post again, to any blog that you may own or support.

Please email this to every person that you know, regardless of their background. Let them know that Ebony and Jet magazines have been part of the black American culture for three quarters of a century, and that there is a lot that they can learn about black American culture from reading them.

We are currently discussing the idea of throwing an Ebony/Jet Party, where people can eat, drink, and sign up for their subscription on the spot. Please spread this idea around to all that you know. Your Sororities, Fraternities, Lodges, VFW Posts, Churches, Civic Groups, Block Clubs, Caps Meetings, Book Clubs, etc.

It would be a crying shame, to lose our historic magazine, during the same year of such an historic event as the election of our first black President of the United States.

Now, like a lot of other black people, I grew up with Ebony and Jet magazines on the family coffee table. I remember fondly sitting in the brown recliner in my grandparents’ back room reading a then-oversized Ebony with Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor on it. (Don’t know why I specifically recall that issue of the magazine, but for some reason it is one that remains etched in my mind.) I say this to illustrate that these magazines are part of my cultural history. Nevertheless, when I read the missive above, my first thought (after wondering if the message-writer understands that subscriptions generally account for far less of a publication’s revenue than advertising does) was…”Meh.” I’m not so sure that Ebony and Jet, as they stand today, are institutions worth going to the mat for.

To be sure, John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson publishing empire that produces Ebony and Jet, represents an inspiring success story. When the 27-year-old entrepreneur launched Ebony in November 1945 (Jet was founded in 1951.), he did so in a climate of mainstreamed racial injustice. Black GIs, like my grandfather, were returning from fighting for “freedom” in World War II to find they were less than free at home in America. Real black voices and black life were obscured by stereotype in American media. Local black newspapers, such as another iconic Chicago publication, The Defender, and Johnson’s magazines were among the few places where black people could see their lives and culture reflected and read news important to them. We mattered to these news and lifestyle outlets. Forget the New York Times, these were our publications of record.

Today, Ebony enjoys a circulation of more than 1.4 million, while Jet reaches nearly 1 million people each week. But I suspect neither magazine is as ubiquitous in the homes of my generation of black folks (GenX) as they were for my parents and grandparents. The truth is, like many Civil Rights-era institutions, both publications began feeling irrelevant a long time ago. Yes, black people still need someplace to see their lives and culture reflected and to read news important to them. (Today’s media is much better in covering people of color, but far from perfect.) But are Ebony and Jet the go-to places for that anymore? No, because while black America has changed over the last 60-some years, these publications have seemed largely the same–like museum pieces. I think of them fondly (like my grandparents’ old recliner in the back room), but emphatically not as publications-of-record.

An example of Johnson Publishing’s out-of-touchness? Sunday at the neighborhood Wal-Mart, I picked up a Jet for the first time in forever, in preparation for this post. I wanted to know if it was still there. In an age when black women are fighting stereotyped images of ourselves as Jezebels, playthings and acoutrement for the latest hip hop star whose cuts are banging in the whips of white, teenage suburbanites–it couldn’t still be there. But, yeah, centerspread, there it was–that paean to black woman thickitude–the Jet Beauty of the Week, a young, black woman in a teeny swimsuit giving sexy face. Is this what I’m supposed to rush to the battlements to save?

The forefront of the black communications revolution is now on the Web, where brothers and sisters are breaking news (Jena 6), championing causes and serving up provocative opinions. Ebony and Jet, I think, have failed to keep pace with a world where there is Ta-Nehisi Coates and What About Our Daughters and Racialicious and Aunt Jemima’s Revenge and Womanist Musings and TransGriot and Something Within and Color of Change and Pam’s House Blend and The Root and Black and Married with Kids, and, hell, Bossip. Today, black readers can get superior writing about politics, black life, marriage, parenting, sexuality, pop culture, identity, racism, sexism, spirituality, finance and a host of other issues, for free, everyday, all day, online. The topics covered (or not covered) by Ebony and Jet, the lack of depth in writing, the formats, the frickin beauty of the week, make these publications seem frozen in time, while the world speeds up around them.

Beyond all that, how is Johnson Publishing going to adjust to the new digital age? It’s not the only print purveyor facing this question. Local newspapers across the country need to answer it too. America has changed the way it consumes information, and so far, print media hasn’t found a profitable way to adapt. That’s a shame, because we desperately need the Fourth Estate. We need in-depth reporting. Marginalized folks need these things more than most. God knows that black folks could use the shot to our collective self-esteem that Johnson Publishing’s products offer. But taking extraordinary life-saving measures to rescue publications like Ebony and Jet is merely stalling the inevitable unless ailing publications put strategic plans in place to innovate and evolve.

Look, the older I get the more pieces of my past mean to me. (That’s probably why I spent the weekend watching old episodes of “Columbo,” “Quincy” and “MacMillan and Wife” on Netflix.) But nostalgia isn’t enough reason for me to join the charge to save Ebony and Jet. All the Ebony/Jet parties in the world won’t make a difference if these black cultural icons aren’t making the changes necessary to save themselves.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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