What will happen with Essence magazine? Time will tell

Two weeks ago the media world buzzed about the 480 jobs lost at Time Inc. The corporation-wide layoffs bypassed some properties, including Essence. Or so it seemed. By the end of last week, Essence Editor-in-Chief Constance White was walking out the door -- along with several other senior level staffers. On Monday another left.

By Wednesday, the buzz was that Time Inc. was going to jettison all its properties -- presumably Essence included -- except three flagships: Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.

Where does that leave the matriarch of African-American women’s magazines? Wherever it lands, it needs a home that will be able to figure out how to keep it viable. These days Ebony -- which Essence had never considered a competitor -- has been revamped and is nipping at its audience. And sister-savvy online publications like Clutch Magazine are also capturing readers’ attention.

If Meredith buys Time's properties, as is rumored, it could be good news for the Black women’s magazine. I’ve long had the impression that Time Inc. didn’t know quite what to make of the magazine. I came to Essence as a part-time health editor in January 2000, just around the time that Time, Inc. bought 49 percent of what was Essence Communications, Inc. When I left almost five years later, I was the Executive Editor -- and the world’s largest media conglomerate would soon acquire the other 51 percent of the magazine’s ownership.

In the interim, they studied us, and we observed them. In fact, my role gave me a front-row seat to watch how the Time machine worked. That 49 percent stake bought us access to the world’s largest distribution network, to bleeding edge technology and to some of the best people in the business. One very (very) high-ranking former Essence exec referred to it as a “candy store.”

If anything, it was a candy factory. A very efficient, successful factory. Time Inc. did things by the numbers. Surveys and studies calculated exactly what people said they wanted to read, and those ideas were given to the editors, who were expected to publish stories based on the research. Yes, we were told there was some leeway to go off the grid. But we also understood that, if your off-the-grid ideas didn’t make the numbers… well, that might prove to be a problem. Because TI knew what worked. And their properties had the circulation numbers to prove it.

But stats and numbers can’t begin to explain the depth and breadth of an Essence. So you got the impression that there was always something about the magazine that TI couldn’t quite put its finger on.

Here’s the thing: Time, Inc. has done an excellent job of reaching mass audiences. Four of its 21 titles are among the top 25 most widely circulated magazines in the country. (Thus it stands to reason that the top rated ones are the ones they’ll keep.) Time magazine has 3.2 million subscribers; People beats that at 3.6 million -- and that’s not even counting single-copy sales or pass-along rates. Yes, Sports Illustrated and InStyle are for specific audiences -- but for everybody in those audiences, every sports fan, every fashionista.

And here’s the problem: Essence was never a mass product. Essence was a religion. Black women bought it, read it, saved it, shared it. As the first major magazine for women of color, it was the publication its readers had grown up with. It was iconic. They believed in it; it believed in them. Even when (I suspect) people weren’t reading it as much, they still subscribed. They didn’t want NOT to have it.

To keep Essence essential, Time Inc. or a new parent company will need to understand how to do religion as well as it knows how to do magazines. Yes, the decision-makers could argue that religion is not their job; selling magazines is. But what is that but proselytizing -- bringing new people into the fold and bringing the prodigals back? How do you do that but by appealing to them on a soul level?

So, who can do that best? Meredith certainly knows how to do niche and has a feel for “real people.” That’s evident in titles like More, attuned to a sophisticated woman over 40; Better Homes and Gardens, a shelter mag that feels like home; and its handful of family and parenting titles. If it can, as it claims, “tap into the special interests of women” like the Essence reader, Meredith might be a good match.

(Of course, there have always been those folks who thought that Essence should belong to Oprah.)

Whoever ultimately fills all those empty seats at Essence will have to find people who understand the Essence reader and the depth and nature of her devotion.

That means that the new owners will need to understand that Black women love their lipstick and their shoes, but we know that there’s a whole lot more going on in our lives, our families and our communities than that. And back in the day, when Essence was Essence, readers looked to the magazine to affirm them and inform them, to uplift them and advise them about what was most crucial and critical. The magazine understood Black women wanted to know how to face those challenges -- how to succeed in work, raise strong children, find love and a little peace -- and look good and feel good doing it. As editors, we didn’t need a sheet of statistics to tell us that.

Do I sound nostalgic? I’m not. In fact, I’m not so much looking back as looking forward. As a college professor, I work every day with young Black women who are trying to find their way. They crave wise advice as much as they want to be sure their hair is tight and their nails are done. From this platform, I can advise and encourage a few of them one by one. Essence is a platform that can touch them all.

Do I sound naïve? I'm not that either. I’m savvy enough about how the business works to know that you can’t ignore the numbers. In this media economy -- when we have to wonder if magazines as we know them will even exist in a couple of years -- I say take advantage of every advantage. But whoever ends up with a publication like Essence must have or find a formula that takes into account the intuitive, indescribable nature of love and loyalty as it exists among Black women.

Tamara Jeffries, former Executive Editor of Essence, is currently assistant professor of journalism at Bennett College in North Carolina. She still contributes to Essence.


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