In a time of unprecedented attacks against the reputations of legacy media brands, the new owners of Ebony magazine are offering quite a case study in how not to handle a PR crisis.
Earlier this month, Ebony lost its fourth editor-in-chief in as many years, laid off about a third of its staff, and uprooted the magazine's operations to Los Angeles from Chicago, its longtime home — all amid claims of magazines failing to reach paying subscribers and freelancers never receiving payment for the work they contributed.
In the weeks since, the situation appears to have only gotten worse.
Journalist Jagger Blaec first broke open the story on April 24. In an article published in The Establishment titled, "Why Isn't Ebony Paying Its Black Writers?," Blaec said she had contacted "close to a dozen" contributors who claimed to have never been paid for work as far back as 2013.
After Blaec's story went wide, at least seventeen contributors came forward claiming unpaid wages, including Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, a frequent contributor who penned the magazine's June cover story featuring Chance the Rapper and served as managing editor for Ebony's Divas special issue.
"I was supposed to have been paid in February/early March," Gibbs tells Folio:. "After [freelance copy editor] Cat DiStasio went to Twitter and got paid, I was given partial payment. I kept asking for the rest. I offered a payment plan. I asked and inquired via email probably 10 times if not more."
Gibbs says she went on to contact Willard Jackson and Michael Gibson, vice-chairman and chairman, respectively, of Ebony owner ClearView Group, as well as Ebony Media CEO Linda Johnson Rice — including a demand letter from an attorney — all to no avail.
The response from Ebony and the Texas-based private equity firm — which purchased the title from longtime owner Johnson Publishing a year ago — has been, in a word, puzzling.
In a follow-up piece published a few days later in The Root, Blaec described a message exchange, purportedy with Jackson, in which Jackson wrote, "Love to chat. I hear you are one of those reporters that like to tear down black businesses," before adding, "Of course they are all getting paid. We bought the business to turn around all this stuff."
That was April.
Since then, Ebony's social media staff has evidently been running some interference on behalf of the magazine's owners, blocking the aggrieved freelancers on Twitter, and even fighting back in a since-deleted Tweet from Ebony's own branded account.
In a later Tweet, Ebony denied that the reply was issued from its account, adding, "We are investigating the matter." No subsequent explanation has been offered, and an email inquiry went unanswered.
Ebony later released the following statement:
Ebony Media values the work of our freelancers and writers. We understand their concerns and we know that their unique talent and dedication to telling our stories have been an integral part of our success. As part of our strategic growth plan, Ebony Media is working diligently to streamline and improve efficiencies throughout our operations and we will honor our commitment to our partners.
Neither Ebony Media nor ClearView Group have responded to repeated requests for comment.
"Even though I worked as a contract editor for three issues, and I have no authority to force a paycheck, I feel awful that these writers haven't been paid," Gibbs adds. "I feel awful that the terms of the contract have been breached and that it has come to this."
The National Writers Union is representing at least 14 of the writers for a combined $30,000 in unpaid compensation.
This is a developing story.
— Liz Dwyer (@losangelista) May 31, 2017
— Blessed. (@AdrienneWrites) May 19, 2017
— All Blaec Errythang✨ (@BasicBlaecGirl) April 25, 2017
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— Pedro Vega Jr. (@pedrovegajr) May 16, 2017
— Zerline Hughes (@zerlinehughes) May 29, 2017
— Kyra Kyles (@thekylesfiles) May 28, 2017