Ebony, the voice of Black America for 75+ years, set for digital relaunch Monday

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

Ebony, the Chicago-born magazine that served as the voice of Black America for more than 75 years, is set for a digital rebirth Monday under new owners.

Bought out of bankruptcy for $14 million in December by Louisville-based Bridgeman Sports and Media, a company owned by retired Milwaukee Bucks forward Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, Ebony will relaunch with a startup mentality, a lean operation and lofty aspirations. The storied publication’s print format and its Chicago roots will be relegated to the past.

“We’re going to ask for grace, because we did this quickly,” said Michele Ghee, 54, a media veteran who was named CEO of Ebony in January. “But we are in a rush to show that we have great intentions.”

A countdown clock on the website, ebony.com, highlights the March 1 relaunch. Ghee said Ebony will offer a new look as part of a plan to reclaim its cultural influence. That mission will fall on Ghee and a staff of about seven full-time employees scattered across the country.

Ghee said the website will be updated daily and entirely ad-supported, with no plans to charge for digital subscriptions. A handful of freelance writers will provide the editorial content. There are no plans to return Ebony to print.

Returning Ebony to prominence, however, is at the top of the list for Ghee, who formerly worked as an executive at CNN, A&E, History Channel and BET Networks.

“Our destination is in everyone’s home,” Ghee said.

First published in 1945 by John Johnson, Ebony became an influential monthly lifestyle magazine that documented the African American experience for more than seven decades. During its heyday, Ebony’s reporters and photographers followed Martin Luther King Jr. from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the 1965 Selma march, culminating in the assassinated civil rights leader’s 1968 funeral.

But Ebony struggled during the digital age, and in 2016, Chicago-based Johnson Publishing sold the magazine and its sister publication, Jet, to Texas-based private equity firm CVG Group.

The magazines didn’t fare much better under CVG Group, with separate lawsuits by employees and freelancers over unpaid compensation, several publishing interruptions and deepening financial woes. Ebony’s owners filed for bankruptcy in July after defaulting on about $10 million in loans.

Ebony, which had a monthly circulation topping 1.2 million less than a decade ago, ceased the print edition in spring 2019.

Last year, as the Black Lives Matter movement resonated nationwide, Ebony’s website was mostly dormant as the company worked its way through a Texas bankruptcy court, eventually ending up in Bridgeman’s hands along with the Jet website, now set to relaunch in June.

Junior Bridgeman, who spent most of his 12-year NBA career with the Bucks, became a successful fast-food restaurant franchisee after retiring from basketball in 1987. He sold his restaurant interests and in 2017 launched Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Co., a Kansas-based facility whose distribution territory includes Kansas, Missouri, and Southern Illinois.

In 2019, Bridgeman dropped efforts to buy Sports Illustrated from Meredith Corp., which subsequently sold the magazine to Authentic Brands Group for $110 million.

The company plans to take the Ebony brand beyond its website, forming partnerships with TV and movie productions, beauty products and other licensing opportunities, said Junior Bridgeman’s daughter, Eden Bridgeman, 34, who will oversee the broader Ebony business operations.

“Being able to diversify our family’s business through the years allows us to understand that no businesses is going to be able to sustain itself, if it’s just in one particular industry, one particular vertical,” she said. “Our goal is to take the Ebony and Jet brand and diversify it into new industries.”

Family-owned Johnson Publishing also used Ebony to diversify, launching Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973. Johnson Published sold the cosmetics brand for $1.85 million in December 2019 after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier that year.

While Chicago is no longer central to Ebony’s operations, it remains a crucial media market for its new owners, and an integral part of its legacy, said Ghee, who is based in New Jersey.

The success of the relaunched Ebony, however, will require a larger view of the media universe, Ghee said.

“Our commitment is not to any city, but to the Black community,” Ghee said. “We know who our boss is and our boss is them, and their opportunity to have the truth. And we want to provide that.”