Awaiting Another Top Editor, Essence Faces Identity Questions
By Tanzina Vega
Essence Communications, which has been without an editor in chief for its flagship publication since February, is said to be in the final stages of choosing a new leader for the magazine, the fifth such appointment in 13 years.
The new editor will be part of a healthy franchise that includes the Essence Festival, the brand’s annual entertainment event, but running the magazine — once seen as a lifestyle and beauty beacon for African-American women — may prove challenging.
While the festival has repeatedly drawn hundreds of thousands of people and attracted A-list performers like Beyoncé, Essence, the magazine, has faced increasing competition from Web sites aimed at African-Americans. The magazine, which is 43 years old, has been buffeted by the frequent leadership changes, including the completion of its purchase by Time Inc. in 2005. That acquisition may now be contributing to one of Essence’s latest challenges: a growing sense among some readers, bloggers and media analysts that the magazine has lost its editorial direction.
“They’ve lost some of the specific focus, who their audience is and what they want to say to them,” said Noliwe M. Rooks, an associate professor of Africana studies at Cornell University and author of “Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture That Made Them.” “They keep doing more of the same as opposed to actually innovating.”
In February, after a wave of layoffs at Time Inc., the magazine fired three members of its newsroom staff, the editor in chief, Constance C. R. White, the beauty editor and the creative director. Articles about Ms. White’s departure were filled with comments from Essence readers, many of whom said they had stopped reading the magazine. Others lamented the absence of Susan L. Taylor, who led the magazine from 1981 through 2000, and some objected to the fact that Time Inc. was a media company largely owned and managed by whites.
That complaint is not new. In 2010, when Essence appointed Ellianna Placas as the magazine’s first white fashion director, Michaela Angela Davis, a former fashion editor at Essence, wrote on her Facebook page that she felt as if a girlfriend had died. In an interview, Ms. Davis said that for black fashion editors, the fashion editor role at Essence was “a gateway to working at other magazines. The only place that was reserved for us, was taken away by us.” (Ms. Placas is no longer with the magazine.)
Michelle Ebanks, the president of Essence Communications, said she understood the concern among some readers that Time Inc. had hurt the publication. “What we know is that African-Americans historically, and it is still true today, believe that media in general does an O.K. to poor job of reflecting their lives accurately,” Ms. Ebanks said.
But, she added, “I can tell you that journalistic independence is something Essence enjoys here at Time Inc., along with every other title.”
Ms. Ebanks highlighted the magazine’s success with its audience. According to data provided by the company, based on industry research from GfK MRI, 75 percent of the women who read Essence consider it very good or one of their favorite magazines and 62 percent say they read three out of every four issues.
In an interview in April, Ms. Ebanks said, “The percentage of African-American women who read Essence is nearly 40 percent.” That penetration, she said, is reflected in the close relationship the magazine has with its readers.
“Over the decades, Essence has had a great deal of feedback in letters, e-mails, a lot of conversation in blogs,” Ms. Ebanks said. “This is not a liability. This is an asset. Our editors, now and as they always have, take that dialogue very seriously. It’s precious.”