How Can Essence Move Forward?

by Guest Contributor Chris Rabb

Essence CoverToday I learned that Michael Bullerdick, the latest managing editor of Essence Magazine–a highly influential publication whose first issue published in 1970–inadvertently outted himself on social media recently by expressing extreme right-wing beliefs that counter the history and long-standing values of the organization where he was hired last summer.

What’s notable about this story is that Mr. Bullerdick is a white man. While he is not the first white employee to make headlines–as Ellianna Placas did when she became the first white fashion director–he is the first white person and first man to be the managing editor of this publication geared to Black female readers.

According to Richard Prince at Journalisms, Bullerdick was asked to leave after his posting habits on Facebook came to light:

In one screen shot, an April 10 posting is headlined, “No Voter Fraud, Mr. Attorney General?” touting a video by James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who worked with right-wing trickster Andrew Breitbart. The same day, Bullerdick shared a photo illustration of Al Sharpton headlined, “MSNBC Race Pimp.” Bullerdick also recommends material from the conservative magazine Human Events and the right-wing website townhall.com, from which Bullerdick posted “the Frequent Bomber Program,” an article about 1960s radical Bill Ayers. Bullerdick wrote, “Obama’s mentor and friend.”

The mismatch in values not surprising to me–even though I know very little about Bullerdick, personally. What I do know, however, is that Essence was acquired in 2005 by Time, Inc.–the largest magazine publisher in the U.S.–a corporate conglomerate that well understood the cumulative spending power of Black women.

In 2000, the Black owners of Essence sold 49% of this iconic company to Time. Why just 49%, you ask? Because by retaining 51% ownership of the company, they could technically say that Essence was still Black-owned (insert air quotes here).

The owners no doubt predicted that many Black readers and non-readers alike would condemn this choice as nothing less than “selling out” at the expense of an institution that, in the field of media and journalism, has provided an important outlet for Black women to express themselves in ways that corporate media was loathe to do both before 1970–and arguably even today–in many mainstream circles, despite a few notable exceptions.

So, they pretended intentionally that Essence wasn’t actually being acquired, but that it was a strategic partnership–again, insert air quotes here. In fact, 2000 represented the beginning of the end of Black control of an enterprise that catered specifically to Black people. This is not to say that Essence no longer hired Black people or that there were no Black senior executives there. The partnership with Time represented a change in control and, thus, direction for Essence.

My grandmother used to caution me that you can always tell the real politics of an organization by its board and its budget. Apply this wisdom to Essence, and you will find Time’s fingerprints everywhere…which brings us to Mr. Bullerdick.

Without Time’s control of Essence, Mr. Bullerdick wouldn’t have even gotten a job working in the mailroom based on his clear antipathy for the organizational values of Essence.

The choice to sell Essence to a media conglomerate was a purely financial decision. The problem with that choice is that–not surprisingly–it has eroded the brand and mission of this esteemed publication. It was strategically short-sighted decision by the original owners because they chose money over mission. And, as a consequence of taking the money to walk away from control of Essence, it also meant saying goodbye to a mission in service to a once under-valued, near invisible population, but now highly prized consumer base: Black women.

The counterargument is that to scale up a respected and growing enterprise, they needed both access to sufficient capital and a market leading partner to usher them into a new era of expansion. The reality is, while not necessarily an easy fit, there are other ways to raise capital without potentially bankrupting one’s brand and risking long-cultivated customer loyalty. They chose the most traditional and lucrative route. While the owners knew that this was not an ideal situation, they also realized they may never acquire the type of wealth they sought in the foreseeable future through other means–especially without bringing in outside investment of some kind.

I do not begrudge any business owner to do what they feel they must do legally and ethically to financially benefit from their efforts. However, when the choice one makes to do so flies in the face of decades of work they’ve done to get to that decision point, then all bets are off–particularly when the product of that company is a community asset.

Community assets are those tangible and intangible things that improve society as a whole–things that build communal wealth. Things like a health/wellness, public safety, education, arts and culture, journalistic and civic engagement, and the stewardship of our environment, youth, elderly, disabled, displaced, infirmed and marginalized communities.

Enterprises whose offerings and operations are directly tied to creating or bolstering community assets are what I call “commonwealth enterprises,” and leaders of such enterprises are people who understand the salient differences between ownership vs. control, customers vs. stakeholders, markets v.s communities.

To restore Essence‘s brand and its mission in the aftermath of this unfortunate scandal, it goes far beyond what ultimately Time chooses to do to (and with) Mr. Bullerdick. It requires Essence’s most trusted stakeholders to identify themselves and restore control in such a way that it is realigned with the communal will of those who it once served with integrity.

In short, it must restore the essence of why this publication was founded–to create an invaluable form of non-market wealth that Black women benefited from in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and still deserve today.

Chris Rabb is a writer, lecturer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the book, Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity, and teaches social entrepreneurship at Temple University Fox School of Business and the Masters Program in Sustainable Design at Philadelphia University.

  • honeybadger don’t care

    I have to admit that Essence was the magazine I loved to hate for years.  That includes the Susan Taylor era. I grew up Roman Catholic, queer, and interested in classical music and early jazz, and I never felt that Essence reflected any part of my life. Ever. The hair styles were primarily about processed hair, and did nothing for me. There were never any articles on lesbians. I didn’t relate to articles on ministers and ‘the black church’. The travel articles were bland, and never really said anything about what it was like to travel to mostly non-white countries as an African-American. There was nothing on science, black musicians who played anything but modern music, art history, or politics outside the US (or even within it for that matter). I actually met Taylor once and found her smugness distressing. 

    At this point I read sites like Racialicious and The Root, among others. My needs still aren’t completely fulfilled, but I’ve accepted that I will probably never see a magazine or website that will completely cover the panoply of blackness. 

  • honeybadger don’t care

    I have to admit that Essence was the magazine I loved to hate for years.  That includes the Susan Taylor era. I grew up Roman Catholic, queer, and interested in classical music and early jazz, and I never felt that Essence reflected any part of my life. Ever. The hair styles were primarily about processed hair, and did nothing for me. There were never any articles on lesbians. I didn’t relate to articles on ministers and ‘the black church’. The travel articles were bland, and never really said anything about what it was like to travel to mostly non-white countries as an African-American. There was nothing on science, black musicians who played anything but modern music, art history, or politics outside the US (or even within it for that matter). I actually met Taylor once and found her smugness distressing. 

    At this point I read sites like Racialicious and The Root, among others. My needs still aren’t completely fulfilled, but I’ve accepted that I will probably never see a magazine or website that will completely cover the panoply of blackness. 

  • Anonymous

    “Purely financial” is the operational term. This economic enterprise, called the US of A, once paid some homage to values beyond the “purely financial” Some of the earlier powers did have piety–or there would not have been an effective abolitionist movement. It required finances, as well.

    Over time’s ebb and flow, the momentum to increasing single focused valuing–money– has become a tidal wave/tsunami, so that financial profit is the only vision in the society. Sadly, the strongest pull has been toward the narrow minded, “Midas” side of the continuum. My family did not read Time, preferring the more freedom focused Newsweek–also, the less successful financially..

    Perhpas, one morning we will awake to learn the somewhere after midnight the tide turned. thanks for a great article.

  • Anonymous

    Not quite those kind of politics. It’s more about the stance of the magazine. I believe Essence have published black Republicans before, but they wouldn’t publish anyone who thought so poorly of the first black President, who uses terms like “race pimp” (especially since Essence is explicitly about race). Someone doesn’t have to be progressive to be anti-racist, but the current trend among right wing folks is to minimize how racism impacts WOC which is out of step with Essence historically.

    • exstaffer

      Michael wasn’t published in Essence.  The bigger problem is this: Those articles that everyone on her is complaining about have tested the highest when they do a report on which articles you liked in the magazine…that’s why it is still there. 

      • Anonymous

        I was thinking of Sophia Nelson. She IDs as Republican, though she acknowledges her party has left her, as of late.

  • Mildred Lewis

    Gordon Parks, Marcia Gillespie, and Susan Taylor were very different people with different editorial philosophies. Yet each brought consistent excellence to the table during their tenures at Essence. I’m very unclear how hiring Bullerdick could have helped maintain this tradition.

    This situation surfaces two larger questions.  How have readers changed? With the decline of Essence ad Ebony, and still lamented death of Emerge Magazine, where is their a place for serious African American coverage, let alone coverage of the diaspora? 

    What could it have been like for the African Americans working for Bullerdick at “our” magazine given his views?

    Baffling and distressing.  

    • Anonymous

       Absolutely!

    • Anonymous

      Agreed overall, though I think Ebony is on the up and up with its new editor. Its site has a bunch of new columnists, including dream hampton. It’s encouraging to see, especially since Johnson Publications was on the brink of collapse not long ago.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed overall, though I think Ebony is on the up and up with its new editor. Its site has a bunch of new columnists, including dream hampton. It’s encouraging to see, especially since Johnson Publications was on the brink of collapse not long ago.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    Essence earned its reputation among African American women by being an advocate for us. As a teen and a young adult Essence was an island of true concern for us in a world that didn’t give a damn about us. Now Essence has joined the world in not giving a damn about us. Time, Inc. is only interested in ad dollars, it couldn’t care less about Black women. And that means that thing on newsstands is really just a bootleg copy of what used to be. This incident with the White male managing editor means nothing to me. It’s just par for the course of Time’s Essence Magazine. At this point they should just fold the magazine rather than continuing to destroy the legacy of a once groundbreaking magazine.

  • Erika M

    I stopped subscribing to Essence after Susan Taylor left.  A couple of years ago, I had picked up a copy and was shocked at the lack of quality content.

  • Flickappeal

    ::sigh:: I only was an Essence subscriber for two-three years but I had to  cut it off as son as Miki Taylor retired. No offense to Ellianna Placas but you could tell the quality went down just by the covers. They’re always in front of a green screen now that’s painted out and replaced with some solid, boring color. The quality of the articles have gone down and what good ones they are redundant. How many variations of “How to get your life together” and “Get your money right” can you do? I decided to save a few trees and not subscribe anymore. I still have faith that they will get there act together!

    • Anonymous

      THIS.  My friends I sadly joked a couple of years ago that all Essence cover stories boiled down to major celebrity article, getting a man, keeping a man, getting you finances together, and fashion.  Do they do any real reporting anymore??  I remember being a teenager and actually reading good investigative journalism in Essence.  I echo your sigh.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

        When did Essence ever cover anything beyond major celebrity articles, getting a man, keeping a man, getting finances together, and fashion? The only article that I ever read that was any good (it would be considered a puff piece/whitewash article now) was an article on Zimbabwe done sometime around the early 1990′s.

  • Guest

    This is well reasoned critique! 

    I wonder, though, what is the mechanism by which Time exercises control over Essence given they enjoy only a minority stake? If I read the article correctly, the original owners still possess de jure control of the company. In most corporate contexts de jure control (over fifty-percent) is the ball game, it allows the control block to exercise their will with regard only to corporate and securities law notions of ‘fairness’ to minority stakeholders. Perhaps this particular arrangement carried with it a specific allotment of seats on the board? Or is the author talking more about a situation of practical dependence given how Essence relies on Time, at least on her/his account, for expertise, financing, etc.?

  • Guest

    This is well reasoned critique! 

    I wonder, though, what is the mechanism by which Time exercises control over Essence given they enjoy only a minority stake? If I read the article correctly, the original owners still possess de jure control of the company. In most corporate contexts de jure control (over fifty-percent) is the ball game, it allows the control block to exercise their will with regard only to corporate and securities law notions of ‘fairness’ to minority stakeholders. Perhaps this particular arrangement carried with it a specific allotment of seats on the board? Or is the author talking more about a situation of practical dependence given how Essence relies on Time, at least on her/his account, for expertise, financing, etc.?

    • guest

      via wikipedia: In 2005 Time Inc. made a deal with Essence Communication Inc. to purchase the remaining 51 percent it did not already own. via nytimes: The reason why Time Warner bought the remaining stake was that
      ”Time Inc. is struggling on the publishing side to add more mass. They are so saturated with big magazines that one of the directions that they need to go is into ethnic markets.”

  • http://Educate-Empower.com/ BNWW

    Excellent!