Ebony Drags Feet on Freelancer Payments Despite Barrage of Criticism
The magazine won't say why it missed a settlement-mandated deadline to pay stiffed freelancers, but asserts that its debts will be settled by year's end.
This article has been updated to reflect a response from Ebony.
Faced with the threat of a second lawsuit in 12 months, Ebony has completed the third of four quarterly payments owed to freelance writers it had stiffed on a collective $78,000 of work going back to 2015—after initially failing to meet a court-ordered Sept. 28 deadline.
The installment of $29,850—which covers 14 of the 45 total writers under the terms of a February settlement between Ebony owner Clear View Group and the National Writers Union—comes after two earlier installments of $14,385 and $15,955, both of which were paid on time. A final $18,328 payment is due Dec. 28 to 16 writers.
After the Sept. 28 deadline came and went, the writers union threatened further legal action to compel payment from CVG, which is bound by the agreement—reached in the circuit court of Cook County, Ill.—to cover the payments should Ebony find itself unable to make them.
“CVG was about three weeks late and wasn’t returning calls or emails,” National Writers Union president Larry Goldbetter tells Folio:. “After the [court] filing, the checks went out.”
Michael Gibson, the chairman of CVG—a Texas-based private equity firm which bought Ebony in 2016—declined to share any reasons for the delay, but confirmed that the third set of checks have been mailed and said the fourth and final payment will be made in December. A spokeswoman for Ebony blamed “legacy business issues” for the outstanding payments.
As writers awaiting overdue checks aired grievances on social media in recent weeks, Ebony promoted a star-studded gala celebrating its annual Power 100 list set for Friday evening at the Beverly Hilton—the site of the Golden Globe Awards since 1961—hosted by Chris Tucker.
“I got my check at the end of October and was shocked to receive it, to be honest,” says Adrienne Gibbs, who served as managing editor of Ebony‘s January 2017 issue among other contributions, adding that another writer in that issue, Rashod Ollison, passed away last month from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before ever receiving his $900 check.
“I talked with [Rashod’s] sister and made sure CVG—via the union’s lawyers—had his sister’s address,” Gibbs adds. “Rashod’s check was ‘in the mail’ for weeks even as he died and was raising money for medical bills.”
The controversy ramped up in April of last year, when freelancer Jagger Blaec wrote an article on The Establishment asking, “Why Isn’t Ebony Paying Its Black Writers?” On Twitter, aggrieved freelancers coalesced around the hashtag #EbonyOwes, eliciting initial pushback from both Ebony and CVG vice-chairman Willard Jackson, who accused Blaec of writing an “attack article” and “wanting to tear down black businesses.”
“Yeah well, your little Twitter rant isn’t going to change the way the media business is run,” read a deleted Tweet from the official Ebony account. “Y’all acting like it’s 100s of people. It’s 10.” (Turns out it’s at least 45.)
Weeks later, however, CVG issued a statement to NBC, asserting that it would pay all debts by early July 2017. When that deadline passed, the National Writers Union became involved, led by Goldbetter and Gibbs.
Following the completion of the third quarter payment, the oldest outstanding invoice is now from this past March, and the most any individual writer is owed is $2,650.
“In the time since we have started this case, I’ve heard from 10 additional writers who wanted to join the suit,” says Gibbs. “The whole situation is just sad. Every time a new story surfaces, even more people come out of the woodwork.”
Gibson disputed this article shortly after it was posted, writing via email, “This story as we see it is completely inaccurate.” Asked which aspects, specifically, are inaccurate, Gibson referred Folio: to Katrina Witherspoon, SVP of marketing for Ebony, who gave the following statement:
While unfortunately EBONY was contacted to provide limited response to only one question from Folio pertaining to this particular matter, Michael Gibson made it clear the company has satisfied all outstanding payments with the National Writers Union.
As we have stated previously, all prior issues related to payment obligations to former freelance writers were the result of legacy business issues that predated the new business model put in place by Ebony’s current management.
Furthermore, as it relates specifically to freelance writers, Ebony has instituted a policy that now provides increased transparency regarding payment terms and conditions for freelance writers we engage.
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