Actress Viola Davis with former Essence Editor in Chief Constance White (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
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By Wednesday, the buzz was that Time Inc. was going to jettison all its properties -- presumably Essence included -- except three flagships: Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.
Where does that leave the matriarch of African-American women's magazines? Wherever it lands, it needs a home that will be able to figure out how to keep it viable. These days Ebony -- which Essence had never considered a competitor -- has been revamped and is nipping at its audience. And sister-savvy online publications like Clutch Magazine are also capturing readers' attention.
If Meredith buys Time's properties, as is rumored, it could be good news for the Black women's magazine. I've long had the impression that Time Inc. didn't know quite what to make of the magazine. I came to Essence as a part-time health editor in January 2000, just around the time that Time, Inc. bought 49 percent of what was Essence Communications, Inc. When I left almost five years later, I was the Executive Editor -- and the world's largest media conglomerate would soon acquire the other 51 percent of the magazine's ownership.
In the interim, they studied us, and we observed them. In fact, my role gave me a front-row seat to watch how the Time machine worked. That 49 percent stake bought us access to the world's largest distribution network, to bleeding edge technology and to some of the best people in the business. One very (very) high-ranking former Essence exec referred to it as a "candy store."
If anything, it was a candy factory. A very efficient, successful factory. Time Inc. did things by the numbers. Surveys and studies calculated exactly what people said they wanted to read, and those ideas were given to the editors, who were expected to publish stories based on the research. Yes, we were told there was some leeway to go off the grid. But we also understood that, if your off-the-grid ideas didn't make the numbers... well, that might prove to be a problem. Because TI knew what worked. And their properties had the circulation numbers to prove it.
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.
Tamara Jeffries, former Executive Editor of Essence, is currently assistant professor of journalism at Bennett College in North Carolina. She still contributes to Essence.