In its nearly 50-year history, Essence magazine’s masthead has always shimmered with the names of brilliant Black women writers and editors. (Men too, but this is mostly about the ladies.)
For many of us, Essence was one of the first national magazines where we saw our faces, our hair textures, our concerns, and our culture presented front and center with pride.
It wasn’t about a “negro problem,” it was about Black life.
Time Inc. takeover
The #blackgirlmagic aspect of Essence’s editorial side has never wavered, but in 2005, at a time when many print publications were losing advertising dollars and struggling to navigate the online landscape, Essence was sold to Time, Inc.
Many bristled at this transaction and wondered if the bold, Black, and beautiful voice of Essence would be brought to a strangled whisper, stifled by Time Inc’s bevy of women’s lifestyle magazines targeted to white women.
How and if Time Inc’s acquisition impacted Essence’s messaging is debatable, but important aspects of the brand continued on, including the wildly popular (and profitable) Essence Music Festival, and the unstoppable squad of talented Black women and editors.
Rumors of another sell
However, once again in the ebb and flow of media, Essence found itself in a precarious position. In 2017, Time Inc announced its intention to sell Essence.
Would Oprah buy it? Would some merciless corporation buy it just for the festival and fold the magazine? Tensions rose even more when later in the year, the Meredith Corporation announced that it would be acquiring Time, Inc. and all of its properties—except Essence.
But something like a miracle occurred.
Richelieu Dennis, co-founder of Shea Moisture (another Black woman-centric brand), created Essence Ventures LLC and bought Essence. Not only did he buy Essence, but he’s keeping the all Black-woman executive team intact. They will also have an equity stake in the company.
“We are excited to be able to return this culturally relevant and historically significant platform to ownership by the people and the consumers whom it serves and offer new opportunities for the women leading the business to also be partners in the business,” said Dennis in a press release.
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, is optimistic about the acquisition. “This acquisition of ESSENCE represents the beginning of an exciting transformation of our iconic brand as it evolves to serve the needs and interests of multigenerational Black women around the world in an even more elevated and comprehensive way across print, digital, e-commerce and experiential platforms.”
A new chapter
The corporate glow-up of an all Black woman executive team is inspiring and perfectly embodies the spirit of Essence. It is “for us, by us” in action. Though this is positive news, it is merely a new chapter, not a happily ever after.
As a cautionary tale, Essence need not look very far.
In 2016, Ebony magazine (another legacy Black publication) switched ownership from the original Johnson family to a Black-owned investment firm called the Clear View Group (CVG).
Ebony publicly struggled with finances and structure before the acquisition, but the press release about the transaction was full of optimism and talked about the opportunity for long-term growth and expanded editorial offerings.
The reality? Ebony lost a third of its staff to layoffs in 2017 and CVG is now being sued by dozens of freelance creatives (this writer included) who claim they are owed approximately $80,000 for services rendered. The hashtag #EbonyOwes across social media platforms details the list of alleged transgressions across.
Essence has no such public grievances against it, but Ebony is a reminder that Black ownership alone is not enough to protect the integrity and legacy of Black businesses.
Some are wary of Dennis because he recently sold Shea Moisture and other brands under his parent company Sundial to international juggernaut Unilever. They worry that he might do the same with Essence for the right price. However, Dennis emphasizes that he and his family still run Sundial as a separate unit within Unilever.
Only time will tell what kind of leadership Dennis will provide at Essence and if he and his knowledgeable executive team will be able to successfully navigate the treacherous and ever changing waters of media and publishing.
For now, it’s a win-win for everybody.