Is Time Running Out On Essence Magazine?
By: Makebra M. Anderson
NNPA, National Correspondent
Originally posted 3/28/2005
WASHINGTON (NNPA) When White companies purchase Black-owned businesses, everyone says African-Americans have nothing to worry about. If the takeover of Essence Communications by media giant Time, Inc. is any indication, those assurances are made to ease the transition. It’s only March, and Essence has experienced more changes than most publications experience in a year.
In January, the company sold its remaining 51 percent to Time, Inc., the publishing division of Time Warner. In February, the company put its new urban fashion and style magazine Suede on hiatus and now, Diane Weathers has unexpectedly stepped down as editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. Some think this is only the beginning.
“I don’t think people should be surprised by anything when you have a merger, partnership, acquisition or a new business because you never know what can happen. When there are new people leading, a change at the top or a change in ownership all bets are off,” explains magazine publishing specialist Yanick Rice-Lamb.
Weathers, who has been editor-in-chief of the popular Black women’s magazine since 2001, told her staff she would be stepping down to pursue other goals and spend more time with her family. Her predecessor, Monique Greenwood, lasted one year. Counting Founding Editor Susan Taylor, the publication has seen three editors within the past five years.
“I’m leaving for personal and professional reasons,” said Weathers in an interview with Target Market News (TMN). “I’m going through some things with my family and I really need more time to focus on them. I don’t have the energy to really put the attention that I need into the magazine. I need to focus on my family issues.”
Lamb, who is the former editor of BET Weekend and Heart & Soul magazines, understands the pressure that the high-profile editor position can put on your family. She was able to balance being an editor, mother and wife for several years before deciding to put her family first.
“Having been in that position before, I know how hard it can be. When you are the editor, there is a lot of travel, a lot of interaction with the public, a lot of interaction with the staff and a lot of interaction with the business side,” she said. “I’ve had situations where I’ve left work to go to my son’s baseball game and then went back to work.”
Some critics say Weathers is merely mouthing the company line and that the problems are more serious than she lets on.
After Time, Inc., the largest publishing company in the world, purchased 49 percent stake in Essence and started moving many of its people into key positions on the business side, it was expected the media giant would eventually move to acquire total ownership.
At the outset of the Essence-Time Inc. partnership in 2000, president and co-founder Clarence Smith announced his resignation, presumably to make way for a Time, Inc. executive.
When the publishing giant purchased the remaining 51 percent, it was expected further changes would be made. One month after the acquisition was complete, Time Inc. put Suede, the new magazine published by Essence on hiatus. The magazine only had four issues, making it the shortest lived magazine published by a prominent media company.
No one knows what Time, Inc. plans for Essence.
“I’ve been reading Essence magazine for at least 10 years. I’ve seen the magazine grow and I’ve seen it go through some changes,” said New York resident Marsha White. “When I heard that they were going to sell to Time Warner, I knew that things would be different, but I didn’t think it would be so soon and so dramatic. It really makes me wonder what Time Warners' vision is. Where are they going with Essence?”
Lamb agrees that to ease the difficulties that come with transition, everyone must be on the same accord.
“It all depends on the plans that the person that comes in has and the plans that Time Inc. has for the publication. Sometimes people take the wait-and-see approach and gradually make changes and sometimes people will come in and use the transition period as a time to make radical changes,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be disruptive, but often if people are used to working with one person they can feel kind of unsettled.”
To help ease the transition from one editor to the next, Weathers will remain at Essence as an editor-at-large. Her experience as a journalist working for publications such as Black Enterprise, Newsweek, Red Book, Consumer Reports and Essence as a senior editor from 1993 to 1997 contributed to her success as the editor-in-chief.
“I’m proudest of the quality of the magazine. I think it has never been better. I’m proud of our campaigns, the War on Girls, Saving Our Sons and now Take Back The Music. And I’m proud of our numbers — our newsstand sales are up at a time when many women’s magazines have been suffering on the newsstands,” she told TMN.
Some readers are unsettled.
“Essence is a popular magazine, but they really need to get focused and get settled,” said White. “They are really loosing a lot of their loyal customers because of all of these changes. It appears to the public like they aren’t secure with their product, so why should we be?”
Essence is not the first Black company to sell to a White company. The sale of Essence is part of an accelerated trend of major Black business being bought by White-owned companies. That list includes Johnson hair products, Motown and Black Entertainment Television (BET).
With the U.S. population expected to grow by 50 percent over the next 50 years — with 90 percent of that growth among people of color — major White companies are expected to increasingly seek to buy Black companies.
“I’m really disappointed in Essence,” said Michelle Winters, a writer/editor in Washington, D.C. “It’s obvious that Essence will no longer be an independent voice for African-American women. I’m not even sure if they care about the power that Time Inc. now has over the lives of millions of Black women.”
And those women are personally attached to Essence.
“I would say that the audience is a huge cross section of people and they think of it as their magazine,” Weathers said to TMN. “And it’s a real art to meeting the needs of such a diverse audience. It’s a very powerful voice and it’s a very important platform that is respected.”