January 10, 2018

Hi, Happy New Year!

With the horrible weather, threat of nuclear doom, and general fuckery at the Golden Globes, it’s easy to already write off 2018.

We do, however, have at least one spot of good news: Essence is a fully black-owned publication again for the first time in almost two decades. The recent acquisition by Shea Moisture founder Richelieu Dennis begins an exciting chapter in the 48-year history of one of America’s most powerful and widely read magazine brands.

We’ve broken down the business news on Essence and traced some its the history and cultural impact below. (And, as always, we highlight some really good covers).

Stay warm/dry/alive out there.

Danielle & Natalie 

the breakdown of the buy

On Jan. 3rd, Richelieu Dennis announced that his company Essence Ventures LLC would acquire Essence Communications from Time Inc., which purchased the magazine in 2005 after five years of partial ownership. Essence was not included in Time Inc.’s sale agreement to the Meredith Corp. in November, and Dennis then inquired about buying the brand.

President of Essence Communications Michelle Ebanks said in a release that the sale “represents a critical recognition, centering and elevation of the black women running the business from solely a leadership position to a co-ownership position.” Black women run Essence’s executive team and are set to be retained during the sale and gain owner’s equity in the brand.

Essence will focus on expanding its digital businesses and its international growth, partially through events like Essence Festival Durban.

Headquarters: New York 
Lifespan: 1970 - Present
Founding editor: Ruth Ross
Most recent editor: Vanessa Bush
Essence Communication Inc.  -> Time Inc. -> Essence Ventures LLC 
Average reader age: 18-49
the history of Essence
Susan L. Taylor, editor-in-chief of Essence (1981-2000)

“[N]ot just a magazine but her most trusted confidante,” Essence was founded in 1968 by banker Edward Lewis, insurance salesman Clarence Smith, New Jersey ad salesman Jonathan Blount and graphics consultant Cecil Hollingsworth. It was the first general-interest magazine aimed at African-American women. The magazine was initially funded mostly by a $13,000 loan from Freedom National Bank (started by Jackie Robinson) and “family, friends, credit cards."

"The idea was conceived around the time when Dr. King was killed; when Robert Kennedy was killed; during the Olympics of 1968. There was a desire to get young blacks into the media business.,” Mr. Lewis told Ad Age this year. “It was about creating our own destiny in regards to the press. It allowed us to present the stories, pictures and aspirations that we wanted to present."

Famed photographer Gordon Parks signed on as art director in 1969, and the first issue — featuring a female model with an Afro and the pitch to "delight and to celebrate the beauty, pride, strength, and uniqueness of all Black women” — hit newsstands in 1970, with a circulation of 50,000.

Hollingsworth and Blount left Essence in 1971 over disagreements about Playboy’s investment of $250,000 and resulting control over the publication. Smith remained on until 2002, with Lewis now serving as the last original member.

The journalist Susan Taylor started as a fashion and beauty editor at the magazine’s founding, and feature models who displayed the "whole range of black beauty — from ebony to ivory” in affordable, stylish clothing.  She went on to serve as editor-in-chief of the magazine from 1981 to 2000, then worked as the magazine’s publications director until 2017.

Compassionate as she was clever, Taylor is credited with championing black woman’s fiction while also deeply caring about her staff’s work-life balance, spiritual health and career advancement.

essence festival

Even if you don’t read Essence, you probably know about its highly successful festival in New Orleans — captured below in last year’s Girls Trip, if you need a visual reference:

The Essence Festival is the largest magazine festival in the world.  In its 22nd year, the festival was attended by more than 450,000 this past Fourth of July. While the event started as a music festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine, it's since widened its focus with more than 100 speakers and events on everything from beauty trends to building wealth. It routinely draws big names — Oprah! — and big advertisers, including sponsor Coca Cola. The festival also focuses on giving back to its host city through days of service.

9 essence highlights
  1. STAY WOKE EDITION: Check Essence’s inaugural Stay Woke list from last spring. The edition highlighted 100 cover stars “who are socially conscious and vigilant about changing our nation for the better.” Women featured included writer/producer Shonda Rhimes, veteran journalist Joy Ann Reid and Women’s March co-chairs Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez.
  2. LITERARY AWARDS: Fiction or literary writing has come and go in women’s magazines over the years. Essence hosted its inaugural Literary Awards in 2008 and honored creative people including author Terry McMillan, director Melvin Van Peebles (The Shining, anyone?), and actor Jamie Hector (The Wire). Also notable, the Today Show’s newly promoted co-anchor Hoda Kotb hosted the event.
  3. TAKE BACK THE MUSIC: The magazine launched a widely documented 12-month campaign against misogyny in rap and hip-hop videos and lyrics in 2005. The campaign was in part out of solidarity with protests of a visit from Nelly at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

  4. BOOKS: Essence has published multiple hardcover books over the years on subjects including healthy living, success and abundance, and inspiring African Americans.

  5. THE OBAMAS: The former First Family was covered by Essence in both falls 2008 and 2016. Look at this slideshow of Malia and Sasha as kids and weep.

  6. VOLUNTEER SLAVERY?: Former Washington Post reporter Jill Nelson published an excerpt of her 1993 book “Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience,” in Essence, headlined on the cover. Nelson’s memoir describes turbulent years at the powerful national newspaper as a black journalist; she eventually quit and freelanced for outlets including Essence, Ms. and The Village Voice. In a petty-ass rebuttal, former Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (now a commentator at Fox News) attended Nelson’s book signing in D.C. Kurtz’s story ends on Nelson’s words: “We all have our price, whether it’s money or power or whatever.”

  7. INVESTIGATIONS: Essence has been recognized with national awards for its investigative journalism. A 2010 piece by Francie Latour called “The Middle Class Achievement Gap” focused on educational disparities for black students in a suburban New Jersey school. If you’ve read Nikole Hannah-Jones (you should!) in the New York Times, this is just one issue she’s writing about.

  8. CONFESSIONAL: Activist and life coach Rae-Lewis Thornton went public with her AIDS diagnosis on a 1994 Essence cover when it was still incredibly taboo for anyone to say they’re HIV-positive. “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS,” Thornton wrote in the magazine feature. Twenty years later, Thornton spoke to Essence for a triumphant anniversary piece, “Defying Death.”

  9. RISING STARS: Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas became possibly the youngest woman to be featured on an Essence cover in 2012. The story “Gabby Takes Flight” detailed Douglas’ path to victory.

related reads
  • Essence Magazine Is 100% Black-Owned Once Again (Black Enterprise, 2018)
  • The Importance of Essence Magazine to a Black Girl (HBCU, 2017)
  • Ebony, Jet and Essence Making History of Their Own (New York Post, 2014)

Thanks for reading, and hit us up! We want to know your memories with women's magazines, including what you loved and hated. And if you’ve never read a women’s mag, welcome. Send notes and scans:

Copyright © 2017 CLIPPED, All rights reserved.
Written by
Natalie Daher and Danielle Fox. Designed by Martina Ibanez-Baldor.
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