The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine Essence might be the longest-running magazine for black women, but the authors of a new book, The Man From Essence, say that the road to building the brand had many twists and turns.
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The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine

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The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine

The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Summer is upon us and so it's time for our regular summer reading series. Now, often when we think about books for this season, we think about beach ready novels with adventure or romance. But since this year marks the 50th anniversary of many pivotal events in the civil rights movement, this summer we decided to dive into books that explore the theme of freedom. And if you follow media, then you probably know that there's been an ongoing debate about whether this country's media offerings in any way reflect the diversity of the country.

Now we want to go back to 1969, when faces of color were few and far between doing any job in major media. That was the year an unlikely group of businessmen and salesmen decided to create a magazine specifically targeted to black women. They call that magazine Essence. And today it is a coffee-table staple in hundreds of thousands of African American households and businesses. While Essence has undergone many changes over the years, including a controversial sale to Time Inc. in 2005, it is still a place where black women can turn to see diverse images of themselves, read about their most pressing concerns and see the latest trends in beauty and fashion. But the road to making Essence was filled with more drama than you might imagine. Now, a new book by Essence cofounder Edward Lewis, and the magazine's former executive editor Audrey Edwards tells those stories. Edward Lewis and Audrey Edwards, the co-authors of "The Man From Essence" are both with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.


EDWARD LEWIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Mr. Lewis, I'm going to start with you. There are a lot of poignant and kind of surprising stories in the book. But I think the biggest surprise for many people might be that the idea for Essence, a magazine targeted at black women, was started with four men who had no experience in journalism or publishing. So I have to ask, where did the idea come from?

LEWIS: Indeed. One of the reasons why I wrote the book is to demonstrate to black women that before black men cared about them, cared about their history, their beauty and intelligence. And we wanted to bring something into the world that they would ultimately feel good about. And so we started on this journey back in 1968, '69, with an idea to create a magazine for black women. At the time, there, the other women's magazines like Cosmo or Harper's Bazaar, Elle or Redbook or Ladies Home Journal, they were not talking about the aspirations and beauty in black women. And so we thought that this was a void in the marketplace, that we could fulfill that niche.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's both a personal story and a business story. And I do want to get some of the business side of it. But I was interested in the fact that the void also included women on your management team, which led to some kind of disastrous early decisions, including the first name (laughing) which was proposed, which was Sapphire, which was hated by all of the women to whom you mentioned it. You want to talk about that?

LEWIS: We were looking at a variety of names and we thought that sapphire, the real meaning of a sapphire is a precious jewel and strong, and we wanted to say to black women that you're precious and strong. And sapphire, you know, emanates from the old "Amos 'n' Andy" show that was started in 1932. You had two black men and one black woman. The black woman was called Sapphire. So any time any black woman was, when she was called Sapphire, that was put down. She was uncouth, loudmouthed, unfeminine. But as you know, we began to feel good about ourselves with the growth of the civil rights movement and black became beautiful and we just thought that black women were a true jewel and very precious. We did hold some focus group discussions with a number black women and they said have you lost your mind?


LEWIS: And why don't you think about another name? And fortunately we listened, and the third editor of the magazine, a wonderful woman by the name of Ruth Ross, we're bouncing names off the ceiling and she said Essence. Collectively, my partners and I said oh, that is what we should call the magazine.

MARTIN: So your focus group, though, included a lot of wives and girlfriends, as I understand it...

LEWIS: Indeed.

MARTIN: ...Because you really didn't not have the kind of money. Which leads me to my second question, which is one of the early challenges for Essence was securing funding, investments and advertising because a lot of people kind of dismissed the idea out of hand. They just did not believe, what, that there was a market for this kind of thing. They didn't think black women would buy it. How did you deal with that?

LEWIS: We put a business plan together, in which were trying to raise $1,500,000 and we had our first closing, it was only $130,000. And even before we got to the $130,000, if it had not been for a black bank in Harlem, started by Jackie Robinson, he started a bank called Freeman National Bank. The president of Freedom International Bank in 1969 loaned me $13,000. If he had not done that, I may not be talking to you now. We did close, we got $130,000. I immediately went to Chicago and had a meeting with Hugh Hefner, of Playboy magazine. And Playboy made the investment in Essence of a quarter of a million dollars. So that was the genesis of how we got off the ground.

MARTIN: Audrey Edwards, let's turn to you. You were not part of the first editorial team, but you did join the staff fairly early on. As somebody who was just beginning your career, what made you want to work with this magazine? Do you remember what your feelings were about it when you first heard about it?

EDWARDS: When I first heard about Essence, I was working at Redbook and I was a secretary in the fiction department. I was 22 years-old. The editor-in-chief had heard that this magazine was coming out for black women and he was worried that the black women working at Redbook were going to be recruited. And I distinctly remember him coming in to me and saying, Audrey, has anyone from Essence called you? And I said no, and I said to myself, they don't even know I'm here. But one day they will. And in 1981, I was working at Family Circle. I got a call after Susan Taylor had been made editor-in-chief, I got a call from Ed Lewis asking me to come to lunch. And I remember thinking, Ed Lewis knows I'm here. And I think for any black journalist female, working at Essence is the height. I cannot imagine being black and being a journalist and not wanting to work at Essence.

MARTIN: A lot of people coming along today don't know what it's like to be in a world where you never saw your face on the cover of a magazine, particularly a magazine that featured fashion and beauty. Can you describe that though, for people who don't remember?

EDWARDS: Well, working at Redbook, where the editor-in-chief was very much into diversity and it was wonderful from an employment standpoint. But I was in editorial and rarely saw black models in Redbook. I was in the fiction department and we occasionally published black fiction writers, but for the most part, I was editing a product for women who didn't look like me. There was a commitment to hiring, but you were working in these white settings, where you did not see people in the product that you were editing. So Essence was very important to me personally and to me professionally.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Essence magazine's cofounder Edward Lewis and former executive editor Audrey Edwards. We're talking about their new book "The Man From Essence." It tells the story of the founding of Essence magazine, which is this country's premier editorial outlet for African-American women. You know, there were a lot of conversations, some of which persist, Mr. Lewis, today about what the magazine's editorial vision should be. And I wanted to ask about that. As I understand it from the book, I mean, Gordon Parks, the famed photographer, was Essence's first editorial director and he felt the magazine should be focused on fashion and beauty. And the first editor-in-chief Ruth Ross, whom you mentioned, who named the magazine and aren't you glad she did (laughing), thought that the magazine should deal with more hard-hitting topics. Can you talk about that?

LEWIS: We did start out as a one-dimensional concept in terms of being a fashion magazine. But we quickly realized that the black woman is multidimensional and she's got a wealth of needs and information. And so we evolved into a lifestyle women's service magazine that tries to cover the totality of what it is to be a woman and specifically to a black woman.

MARTIN: You know, to that end though, I have to ask about this because these are all things that you write about in the book, Essence was notorious at one point for only using white photographers. The first executive editor, which is the role you eventually took over, was also white and a lot of people would be surprised, I think, to find that out.

EDWARDS: There was not a large pool of black talent to choose from in 1970. And Ed is very clear about saying we wanted to put out the best product possible. And to do that, we needed to hire talent who could train black talent to put out the best product.

LEWIS: Please understand, in those early days, we really thought that we would have an all-black staff, all black everything. But the reality hit us quite quickly with regard to trying to find people to fulfill those positions, particularly back in 1970 and 1971.

MARTIN: Mr. Lewis, I have to tell you, you've got this very level, kind of airline pilot voice. You know, where you feel like nothing would ruffle your feathers.


MARTIN: But the book is filled with these really dramatic, I mean, there were all kinds of drama at this place.


MARTIN: I mean, two of the original partners were ousted from the group. You went through 7 editors-in-chief...


MARTIN: ...over a very short period of time. Why was there so much drama, do you think, at that time?

LEWIS: Well, I think in the, particularly in the early stages of, in the formation of a company, we had four partners. We really did not know each other when we first met. We were equal partners, equally making a decision about how to run a company. That is, in my opinion, a prescription for disaster. And so ultimately, we had to select a person who's going to be the person, they're going to need say yea or nay in terms of the direction of the, of a company. And even when we amongst ourselves, my partners, decided that I would be that person, it still created issues with respect to the partnership. So I asked one of the partners to leave in 1971, another to leave in 1974. But remarkably, the remaining partner, Clarence Smith, and I were together for almost 32 years. That in and of itself was rather extraordinary.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask Audrey Edwards, we started talking about how, what role this magazine plays in the lives of so many people who have few other outlets, at least, especially when the magazine started but did not see themselves reflected in the major media. At least, especially not in a positive way, right? In terms of wearing the latest fashions, being elegant, doing amazing things. How do you think working at the magazine changed you?

EDWARDS: One of the things it did for me was show me what was possible. I actually went into real estate after I went to work at Essence and one of the things that happened to me was, on a regular basis, the magazine was profiling women who had started their own businesses, who were their own women, who were entrepreneurs like the four young men who started Essence. And I saw what was possible because we were writing about these women every month.

MARTIN: Mr. Lewis, you eventually sold essence to Time Inc. in 2005 and there are criticisms of that move to this day. There are those who say that there's no way that a corporate owner like Time is going to respect the full dimensions of the audience or really even understand it. What do you have to say about that?

LEWIS: I began to realize being a one company magazine that headwinds were out there with regard to continuing pressures on cost, paper, printing, people. And I wanted to make sure that Essence will continue to empower black women, that it's going to be sustainable for years and years to come. One of the reasons why I sold the magazine to Time because Time cared about brands, they cared about this audience, this audience was underserved. And the editorial mission of Essence has not changed under the leadership of Time. I've often said, when you begin to see white women on the cover or white women in the magazine of Essence, than Black women should stop buying them insane.

MARTIN: What would you want people to draw from this book?

LEWIS: I do believe that because of the family that I come from, being around my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, they were my heroes and looking at how they were viewed as mothers, as workers, they were not appreciated. And so for me to get involved with a magazine that would celebrate and tell the story of black women was something very, very meaningful. And for me to see Lupita now being shown as one of the most beautiful women in the world and I can remember when black women were thought of in 1970 as uncouth, loudmouth, unfeminine, on welfare, poor and couldn't read - and to see the evolution in terms of how black women are viewed today. How Madison Avenue now views black women in terms of their buying power, it brings a quiet joy to me to know the I've had something to do with helping black women feel very, very good about themselves.

MARTIN: Edward Lewis and Audrey Edwards are the authors of "The Man From Essence." It is a new book about the founding of Essence magazine and they were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Edward Lewis, Audrey Edwards, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

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