Essence Magazine is perhaps one of the strongest brands in the country when it comes to knowing how to target African-American women. But that brand has come under fire, most recently after racially insensitive posts were discovered on its managing editor’s personal Facebook page.
As a white man, Michael Bullerdick’s appointment to one of the top jobs at a magazine serving black women was controversial from the start. This week’s revelation that Bullerdick’s Facebook page contained extreme right-wing views — very different from those held by the magazine’s primary audience — appear to validate concerns readers raised when Bullerdick was hired nine months ago.
The postings included negative depictions of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as a caricature of the Rev. Al Sharpton as a race pimp, videos by activist James O’Keefe and reading recommendations for conservative websites Human Events and TownHall.com.
The Facebook postings were first reported on Sunday by Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which works to improve diversity in U.S. media companies. By Monday, Bullerdick and the magazine had mutually decided to part ways. Bullerdick now works in the books division for Time Inc., Essence Magazine’s parent company. But his reassignment came too late as stories about Bullerdick’s Facebook posts had already started bouncing around cyberspace, forcing leaders at the magazine to do damage control and leaving readers to wonder whether Essence still represents black women.
“Let’s be clear: Bullerdick being White is not the issue, although one could argue that there are thousands of talented Black female journalists locked out of White organizations who would be quite qualified to speak to the Black female experience in America,” writes Dr. Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University who blogs about black culture. “What is most problematic is the fact that Bullerdick is a guy who identifies with the values and beliefs of those who work night and day to preserve our nation’s long-held commitment to racial inequality.”
Watkins believes Essence owes readers an explanation as to how the magazine “let a right wing bigot into a key decision-making position in the first place” and whether executives at the publication understand “how deeply this man has disrespected” the magazine’s brand and its constituents.
The road Essence has traveled
Founded in 1968, Essence Magazine became the go-to publication for U.S. black women – particularly those between the ages of 18 and 49 – interested in health, beauty, career tips, relationship advice, fashion and politics. It initially sold 50,000 copies per month, which ultimately grew to 1.6 million copies. Time Inc. purchased 49 percent of the magazine in 2000; five years later the media giant bought the remaining 51 percent of Essence, putting the magazine in the hands of white owners for the first time in its history.
The sale upset some African-American readers who expressed concern that Essence would lose sight of its mission. Those concerns appeared validated when Essence began publishing ads featuring white women, which raised readers’ ire again. Controversy erupted once more in 2010 when the magazine’s then-editor, Angela Burt-Murray, hired a white fashion director, another first for the magazine. Burt-Murray resigned shortly thereafter. Essence hired Bullerdick last summer as its managing editor in a move some speculated was due to pressure from Time Inc. Readers questioned whether a middle-aged white man could relate to black women.
Controversial posts on personal social media sites by journalists aren’t unique to Essence. But Bullerdick’s posts go directly to concerns raised when he was hired, and that threatens to undermine a unique brand more than 42 years in the making.
Essence is working with a consultant to develop a social media policy, according to a spokeswoman for the magazine. Until then, employees are expected to follow the company’s Standards of Business Conduct, she said.
Bullerdick’s LinkedIn profile states that he edited stories for tone and style, according to the Maynard Institute report; but Essence Editor-in-Chief Constance White said Bullerdick had no editorial input. When Poynter pointed out the conflicting statements, Essence and Time Inc. executives referred back to White’s response.
The future of Essence
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, Inc., agreed to discuss the magazine’s brand, but declined to talk about “personnel matters.”
She said the magazine continues to serve the interests of black women.
“That is our brand’s mission. We are not distracted by anything that is not relevant to us carrying out our mission every single day,” said Ebanks, who joined Essence from Time Inc. “The need for journalistic enterprise to tell the truth of [black women’s lives] is too critical, having the conversations that are going to move the lives of black women forward is too critical. We won’t be distracted.”
With legacy magazines struggling to remain relevant to their target demographics, Essence can ill-afford to have situations like the Bullerdick controversy take it away from its base, said Tandaleya Wilder, president of She Got Game Media, a Miami Beach public relations and sports production company.
Wilder said Bullerdick’s controversial hire and departure from Essence has already become a distraction and is hurting the brand. The magazine’s executives need to act fast to first establish an effective social media policy for employees and ensure they don’t lose readers. They can do that by putting the focus on the positive things they are doing for its readers, Wilder added.
Wilder said the magazine must also ensure it puts people in place who understand the magazine’s mission.
“Bullerdick missed the mark,” added Wilder, a former news director in public radio who is an African-American woman in the magazine’s target age range. “The magazine must show that it is authentically black enough for us.”
Ebanks spent most of her time with Poynter doing just as Wilder suggested, focusing on the positive.
Essence currently has a combined circulation of more than a million readers, but it touts a brand reach of 8 million through its magazine, website, mobile apps and live events such as the annual Essence Music Festival.
Ebanks, who has 25 years of experience on the business side of journalism and is also president of People en Espanol, said Essence continues to find new ways to remain relevant to its audience, including:
- The “Best in Black Beauty Awards,” which Essence will host May 8 to honor beauty innovators;
- Redesigning its website for which it received a 2012 MinOnline Award; and
- Enabling subscribers to now access content on tablets.
Ebanks highlighted substantive reporting on issues important to black women, including an Oct. 2011 story on “Our Teens Secret Sex Lives,” as well as reporting on the high death rates among black women with breast cancer, and a year-long series on black children’s unequal access to education. She also pointed to six awards the magazine will receive next month from the New York Association of Black Journalists, including two first-place prizes in public affairs reporting for the teens secret sex lives story and in investigative reporting for a piece titled “Black Girls for Sale.”
“Our brand is thriving and evolving in this digital media landscape and we are innovating,” Ebanks said. “The team is doing amazing, creative and exciting work that will continue to serve the needs of black women.”