But stats and numbers can’t begin to explain the depth and breadth of an Essence. So you got the impression that there was always something about the magazine that TI couldn’t quite put its finger on.
Here’s the thing: Time, Inc. has done an excellent job of reaching mass audiences. Four of its 21 titles are among the top 25 most widely circulated magazines in the country. (Thus it stands to reason that the top rated ones are the ones they’ll keep.) Time magazine has 3.2 million subscribers; People beats that at 3.6 million — and that’s not even counting single-copy sales or pass-along rates. Yes, Sports Illustrated and InStyle are for specific audiences — but for everybody in those audiences, every sports fan, every fashionista.
And here’s the problem: Essence was never a mass product. Essence was a religion. Black women bought it, read it, saved it, shared it. As the first major magazine for women of color, it was the publication its readers had grown up with. It was iconic. They believed in it; it believed in them. Even when (I suspect) people weren’t reading it as much, they still subscribed. They didn’t want NOT to have it.
To keep Essence essential, Time Inc. or a new parent company will need to understand how to do religion as well as it knows how to do magazines. Yes, the decision-makers could argue that religion is not their job; selling magazines is. But what is that but proselytizing — bringing new people into the fold and bringing the prodigals back? How do you do that but by appealing to them on a soul level?
So, who can do that best? Meredith certainly knows how to do niche and has a feel for “real people.” That’s evident in titles like More, attuned to a sophisticated woman over 40; Better Homes and Gardens, a shelter mag that feels like home; and its handful of family and parenting titles. If it can, as it claims, “tap into the special interests of women” like the Essence reader, Meredith might be a good match.
(Of course, there have always been those folks who thought that Essence should belong to Oprah.)
Whoever ultimately fills all those empty seats at Essence will have to find people who understand the Essence reader and the depth and nature of her devotion.
Today I learned that Michael Bullerdick, the latest managing editor of Essence Magazine–a highly influential publication whose first issue published in 1970–inadvertently outted himself on social media recently by expressing extreme right-wing beliefs that counter the history and long-standing values of the organization where he was hired last summer.
What’s notable about this story is that Mr. Bullerdick is a white man. While he is not the first white employee to make headlines–as Ellianna Placas did when she became the first white fashion director–he is the first white person and first man to be the managing editor of this publication geared to Black female readers.
According to Richard Prince at Journalisms, Bullerdick was asked to leave after his posting habits on Facebook came to light…
The mismatch in values not surprising to me–even though I know very little about Bullerdick, personally. What I do know, however, is that Essence was acquired in 2005 by Time, Inc.–the largest magazine publisher in the U.S.–a corporate conglomerate that well understood the cumulative spending power of Black women.
In 2000, the Black owners of Essence sold 49% of this iconic company to Time. Why just 49%, you ask? Because by retaining 51% ownership of the company, they could technically say that Essence was still Black-owned (insert air quotes here).
My grandmother used to caution me that you can always tell the real politics of an organization by its board and its budget. Apply this wisdom to Essence, and you will find Time’s fingerprints everywhere…which brings us to Mr. Bullerdick.
Without Time’s control of Essence, Mr. Bullerdick wouldn’t have even gotten a job working in the mailroom based on his clear antipathy for the organizational values of Essence.
The choice to sell Essence to a media conglomerate was a purely financial decision. The problem with that choice is that–not surprisingly–it has eroded the brand and mission of this esteemed publication. It was strategically short-sighted decision by the original owners because they chose money over mission. And, as a consequence of taking the money to walk away from control of Essence, it also meant saying goodbye to a mission in service to a once under-valued, near invisible population, but now highly prized consumer base: Black women.