Ebony magazine has been the magazine of black America since it was first published in November 1945. Its stories of success and achievement were a welcome antidote to how its readers normally saw themselves portrayed in mainstream newspapers and magazines. (If they were featured at all, it was usually for something that reinforced the mainstream stereotype of who and what black Americans were.) Until a decade ago, Ebony regularly sold out on newsstands and had a large and loyal subscriber base.
So when Los Angeles writer Liz Dwyer was asked to write three articles for the February 2017 issue, which looked at how African-Americans might fare under new President Donald Trump, she was thrilled to say yes.
"Ebony is one of those historical publications that you grew up seeing on your grandma's coffee table or your parents' coffee table," Dwyer says. "For me, growing up, it was one of the only places that I regularly saw myself or my parents reflected in it. Where I saw women who looked like my mom. Where I saw hair care products that worked in my hair."
She wrote the articles in the fall of 2016 and assumed she would be paid upon publication. February came and went, and Dwyer saw no check. She wasn't the only one. Several other writers, photographers, illustrators and editors were also waiting to be paid.
There were indications of financial trouble earlier. Facing an aging, dwindling subscriber base and overall shrinkage of the publishing industry, Ebony's parent company, Johnson Publishing Inc., sold its showcase corporate headquarters in the Chicago Loop in 2010. The flagship magazine went up for sale last year. Michael Gibson and Willard Jackson, African-American private equity owners of Clear View Group, bought the magazine and its sister publication, Jet, with plans to revive and expand a treasured cultural legacy.
Apparently those plans didn't include paying Ebony's writers in a timely manner. When asked, the writers were given a statement that said, "[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."
For many of Ebony's writers, its place in publishing history is important. Adrienne Samuels Gibbs left the Boston Globe to return to her hometown to work for Ebony. She was a senior staff writer and later left to freelance. She oversaw three special issues, including the commemorative issue that looked at Barack Obama's presidency. When she heard several of the writers she had commissioned for the work were going unpaid, she tried to rectify it.
"Lots of us reached out to CVG to request payment. We started with accounts payable at Ebony, and then when we got no response after weeks and weeks, we reached out to the two owners of Clear View Group, and also to Linda Johnson Rice, whose family has owned Ebony since the beginning," Gibbs said.
The response? Nada.
(Which is consistent with NPR's experience: Calls to Clear View Group's owners, via Facebook and Twitter, for comment went unacknowledged.)
What Gibbs did get was an irritated tweet from CVG co-owner Jackson, accusing her of doing a takedown job on a beloved black publication.
"We love Ebony," Gibbs insists. "No one is trying to tear down a black institution that means the world to black Americans and the larger citizenship of the diaspora. But you still have to pay what you owe."
Soon after, several writers began a social media campaign, #EbonyOwes, to try to leverage payment. CVG's owners blocked their accounts to some, but #EbonyOwes picked up steam anyway.
Then more than two dozen writers asked the National Writers Union for help. Union President Larry Goldbetter said unfortunately, nonpayment of writers isn't just an Ebony problem. "Nonpayment to freelancers is so common — it's a plague, an epidemic," he says.
The #EbonyOwes writers weren't so different in that respect, but they were in another way: "What's unique here is the 30 writers at Ebony have stood together," Goldbetter says, "and that has made a difference."
It's also attracted some attention "from other writers from other publications," the union president says. "And we are getting more names, and we intend to have a few more campaigns going in the future."
This month, some writers began to receive partial payment for their published work. Three people, including Dwyer, were finally paid in full. Dwyer says even though she has been paid, she will continue to work to see that her colleagues are, too.
"What is really tough about it is knowing that there are so many freelancers that are in this position where they are really counting on this money to pay their bills. But even if all they wanted to do was set that money on fire, they did that work, and it's owed to them," she says.
Last week, the National Writers Union announced plans to sue Ebony and CVG to recover the full amount owed to Ebony contributors who have not yet been made whole.