November 20, 2020

Blackness exploded on the covers of magazines during the middle months of 2020. But is it hypocrisy? A performative act so that those magazines can profit from the pain of Black people, as one editor told me? Or is it a genuine change, as I heard from another?

And if it is genuine, why do some magazine editors and some magazine public relations directors not want to talk about the sea change that has taken place in the industry?

Those are the questions I had when it came to the sudden awareness and inclusion of Black people on the covers of almost every mainstream magazine in the weeks and months after the brutal death of George Floyd in May. We witnessed four times as many Black subjects on the covers of magazines (mainstream and niche alike) over the last 120 days compared to the last 90 years. I reached out to some of the largest magazine companies and to some entrepreneurial publishers in the United States to find out what’s different now.

Andréa Butler, editor-in-chief and publisher of Sesi Magazine, a publication for Black teenagers, is not convinced that this change is genuine.

“A lot of these magazines are close to 100 years old, or at least 50, and they’re like, ‘Oh look, Black people exist now,’” Butler said.

To be fair, there are magazines that have always claimed to have diversity, equity and inclusion as part of their DNA. Oprah Winfrey, writing in the December 2020 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, said, “When we started in 2000, no one was talking about mindfulness or wellness or spiritual well-being. Twenty years later, everyone is living their best life. Today the whole media world is scrambling to be inclusive, but O has always been featuring Black and brown voices and faces, members of the LGBTQ community, bodies of all shapes and sizes, people of all ages.”

But O, The Oprah Magazine might have been a lone ranger in this field. It was only a little less than a year ago when an editor told me, off the record, that their magazine lost subscribers and newsstand buyers because they carried Black subjects in the magazine. Other sales consultants shared numbers with me, not for publication, that showed a decline of newsstand sales of up to 50% of the norm when a Black person was on the cover.

Now, though, some editors, speaking on and off the record, tell me that this belief is history. One harsh year in history could lead to major changes in the social and commercial roles of magazines.

Those magazine roles, the social and the commercial, are coming to a collision. Magazines have had this dual role since their creation. Their social role includes, but is not limited to, education, reflection, purveying literature, initiating ideas and pure entertainment. Their commercial role is financial; magazines are marketers and moneymakers.

These roles were referred to in the industry as the church and state roles of magazines — and supposedly the two never intersected.

As long as magazines were in the business of selling the audience, everything was OK. Advertisers footed the bill for the cost of the publication and distribution of the magazines as long as the publisher was able to deliver a hefty audience. Publishers were in the business of selling the audience and in the business of counting customers. They were the matchmakers between the advertisers and the audience.

But in this digital age, advertisers do not need magazines to be the matchmakers for them. Advertisers today know more about their audiences and have more data about them than magazines do.

Magazines today still have to be in the business of selling content, but must also change from purely being content providers to become experience makers. The surviving and thriving magazines are now in the business of customers who count; customers who are willing to pay a high price for the magazine rather the old mantra of counting customers to satisfy a guaranteed sales number to give to the advertisers.

And that’s what brings us to the heart of the issue of the conflict taking place between magazines’ social and commercial roles and their audiences.

Butler, who started Sesi because growing up she didn’t see herself on the pages of any magazines, isn’t convinced. She said she feels that the changes aren’t necessarily genuine. She feels grateful that other magazines are putting Black people on their covers, but also strongly feels that Black people deserve to be on covers not just when their pain is being broadcast and cultural injustices are being exposed.

Doug Olson, president of Meredith Magazines, is adamant that anytime you can strengthen your audience and practice inclusion, it is a good thing and it only grows your business. He said that Meredith has been doing that for some time now, albeit like other magazine companies, he thinks they still have work to do.

“Actually, I think there are two ways to look at it. No. 1, taking a brand or a platform and going after a new audience or a new community. And No. 2, new brands and products and services aimed at a specific community. I think we’ve done both. And we’ll continue to look at both,” Olson said.

The Nov. 30, 2020, edition of People magazine, featuring Michael B. Jordan.

Shona Pinnock, Meredith’s director of diversity and inclusion, said she thinks the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and many others have emotionally exhausted many Black people, including herself, and have left them numb. That is why she said she is determined to drive meaningful change both inside her company and in the content delivered to their massive audiences. Not talking about these things, she said, is not the healthy alternative.

“What I’ve experienced is there is an apprehension for a lot of white colleagues to even really speak about race, because it’s so hot,” Pinnock said. “They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so maybe that’s why they avoid the conversation. Maybe they don’t feel equipped to really articulate it in a way where they don’t feel like they’re offending someone. That’s sort of my theory on that. But I also think it’s quite telling of how sometimes people think there is no such thing as systemic racism and that it doesn’t exist.

“So when you see this influx of all of these Black people on the covers of magazines lately,” she said, “it’s obvious that we hadn’t been included before this point. And that’s why this seems remarkable because we had been erased for so many years.”

At Hearst’s Marie Claire, newly appointed editor-in-chief Sally Holmes told me that, in her mind, the focus on diversity isn’t a trend — it’s a permanent shift. “Something everyone constantly strives to be better at and it is here to stay,” Holmes stressed.

At Meredith, Elizabeth Goodman Artis, editor-in-chief of Shape magazine, and Laura Brown, editor in chief of InStyle magazine, said the Shape and InStyle brands have practiced diversity and inclusion from day one of their tenures. Artis said as far as she and InStyle are concerned, nothing changed, diversity on the pages of their magazines just got louder, making them and their teams more proactive and cognizant.

“Looking forward, I think that obviously this whole experience and everything that happened this summer has yet again brought the issues of systemic racism in this country to the forefront,” Artis said. “The way I see it as a brand leader and a decision-maker, as one little piece of publishing and one little piece of the wellness world, it’s important for me to be thinking about that and supporting that. Nothing changed for me, it just got louder.”

Brown agreed. At InStyle, she said she is always conscious of skin tones and the images that appear in the magazine.

“I certainly make sure that when we have women in the magazine, whether it’s a model or an image of a woman, I make sure that we have a wide variety of skin tones, and women of color are truly represented,” Brown said.

But what about magazine leaders who declined to talk about this topic? Is it that they don’t know what to say or don’t want to publicly say it?

“I call BS on that big time,” Brown said.

I have been following and tracking the magazine industry since I came to the United States in 1978. I have interviewed every CEO of every major magazine company and hundreds of editors and publishers throughout my career. Never before have I been faced with the challenge to interview someone in the industry who “did not have the time” or was “too busy” or “too close a deadline” or would “rather sit this one out” or “will talk as long as it is off the record” — all answers I received when I asked some to speak with me about Black representation in their magazines. Most were willing and eager to do so, but too many were not. Those mentioned in this article were willing and happy to do so.

Richard Dorment, editor in chief of Men’s Health magazine, said all magazines, including Men’s Health, can use this awakening to do better. In fact, in his September 2020 editor’s letter, he said just that. He believes that the magazine cannot claim to be an advocate for men’s health if it doesn’t reflect all men, including Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous men. He vowed to do better.

“The efforts we’ve made over time to diversify and expand whose stories get told, and whose health and wellness we feature most prominently, have not been enough — not by a mile,” he said.

A spokesperson for Condé Nast told me that while they have always believed in diversity, they want to continue to grow and expand their audiences.

“Our brands have a long track record of celebrating diverse ideas, perspectives, and talent — one that predates the events of this summer,” the spokesperson said. “The past three months have served as further proof of how important it is for our brands and content to continue to evolve, and we’re encouraged by the industry’s collective efforts to lift and amplify new voices.”

These conversations are encouraging and hopeful. It was the conversations I didn’t have with magazine professionals, those that were blocked by their public relations executives at some, that are worrisome and cause for concern.

I never imagined the absolute excuses that I would receive from some in the magazine industry when it came to talking about Black subjects and magazines. It was a bit daunting.

I have always been a cheerleader for the magazine industry, and have never been in the business of calling out or shaming anyone. I can honestly report that I never expected silence as a reaction from some of the magazine editors and publishers that I contacted for a period of over a month. I am naming no names, but the mere fact that the people in this article are the only ones who spoke with me should be enough.

And quite honestly, it should be a reason to believe that all is not as rosy as it seems when it comes to the celebration of Blackness in the mainstream magazine industry. Hypocrisy or genuine change? Maybe both.

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Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the School of Journalism and New Media at The…
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