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So What Do You Do, Emil Wilbekin, Managing Editor of Essence.com?

The media maven talks taking a 40-year-old mag and its legacy into the digital world

- December 15, 2010
It takes a visionary to sculpt an entire publication into something that thousands, maybe even millions of people want to read from one month, week or day to the next. And stepping into the institution that is Essence, a mag with roots running 40 years deep and a readership of multi-generational Black women, is like being a new host for Amateur Night at the legendary Apollo Theater. Think not? Note the major fracas surrounding its hiring of a white fashion director this past summer.

Still, Emil Wilbekin, a two-time Webby honoree and the man who once helmed Vibe and Giant, stays focused on moving the Essence machine in a digital direction, marrying the overall vision for the brand with his own multifaceted background in fashion and entertainment. So far, so good: more than a million monthly visitors flock to Essence.com now under his tutelage. We spoke with the multimedia man about his latest muse and what it takes to make a great journalist.


Name: Emil Wilbekin
Position: Managing editor, Essence.com
Resume: Founding editor at Vibe magazine, climbing ranks from style editor, fashion director and ultimately, editor-in-chief from 1999-2004 before transitioning to VP of brand development for Vibe Ventures. Became head honcho of Vibe.com and Vibe TV, and executive produced the Vibe Awards. Served as consultant on projects like Lebron James's official website and blog. Switched gears to become VP of brand development for Marc Ecko clothing line. Contributed to the company's magazine, Complex, as well as reporting and writing for AOL Black Voices and the Huffington Post. Named editor-in-chief of Giant and re-launched award-winning website for now-defunct mag. Stepped into current managing editor position at Essence.com in 2009.
Birthdate: September 16
Hometown: Cincinnati, OH
Education: Undergrad degree in mass media from Hampton University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Style
Favorite TV show: Glee
Guilty pleasure: Real Housewives of Atlanta
Last book read: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind
Twitter handle: @emilwilbekin


As a man who's at the helm of a brand that speaks intimately to the lives and experiences of women, how are you able to relate to the content and, more importantly, make sure it's relevant to your readers? Have you ever missed the mark?
You immerse yourself in the subject matter but you also listen to the audience. I listen to the amazing women in my life and in this office, and I really listen to the comments on social media and the site. They're the best resource and research that I could ever have, because the audience is very vocal. So, they tell you what they like and don't like. The beauty of digital is that you can change things very quickly, so if I have questions I'll usually toss them up on Facebook to see what the audience thinks about things. I've definitely missed the mark, though, and I think that's just a part of life.

What have you done to increase Essence.com's readership since you came on board? Is it encroaching on Essence's print numbers?
We very much view Essence.com as an extension of Essence magazine, and we hope to provide a solution for the Essence reader in a digital format. If she reads the magazine every month, what would she read every day? So it's complementary, the website and the magazine, and I think that it's challenging sometimes because the magazine is a 40-year-old brand and we're creating that younger, faster, daily digital destination. To increase traffic on Essence.com, we've done a combination of producing more relevant content, covering news that's topical and using social media to help drive engagement from Facebook, Twitter to bit.ly. We've also done some partnerships with other sites like CNN and People.com. Those things have helped to grow the audience.

"I still wonder, specifically in the age of Obama, why we don't have a Black Vanity Fair."

Your decision to include a lesbian couple in the Bridal Bliss section was a first for Essence.com. Why was this particular issue the right time to incorporate a gay wedding into the feature?
Essence magazine has had a history of covering LGBT topics, but it was a first for Essence.com. I think it was the right time to cover this story, because, that particular week, there were so many LGBT topics in the news, from gay marriage to gays in the military to bullying to a homophobic attack on gay men and gangs in the Bronx. In the governor's race, there was talk about gay culture and homosexuality. It was an appropriate story in that sense, because we concentrate on love and weddings every Wednesday and it fit perfectly into that. It was also topical to the discussion about gay marriage. Like any editor, I'm always looking for really good stories. But I didn't go after this story; the story came to me.

What do you pull from your skill set that's made you successful in both fashion and media for so many years? What specific challenges have you faced as an openly gay Black man working in those worlds?
I think the skill sets are very similar for fashion and journalism in that, for me, it's all about journalism, reporting, and discovery, and how do you create conversations and move culture. I think they're both about change and news and visuals and multi-culture. They work really well together. But I've actually been very fortunate that my sexual orientation has not been a challenge in the workplace. If anything, it seems to be an asset because I've been honored by many civic organizations for being an openly gay man in media. I haven't been judged by that. I've been judged on the basis of my work.

Now that you've conquered both fashion and journalism, what would you add to make yourself a triple threat?
I'm a great dancer. No, I'm just kidding. Well, I haven't written a book yet and I haven't finished a screenplay yet. I think those would make me a triple threat. I work on them when I can but when you're running a website, it's challenging to do any other kind of writing.

Have Giant's and Vibe's struggles to stay afloat surprised you at all? As a former insider, what lessons did you learn there, and what do you think their legacies are?
It was surprising to me that Vibe had to struggle. Giant was very niche and independent, so I kind of knew that that was going to be challenging. I think we're living in a very interesting time in terms of media; so I think it's hard to stay relevant, stay afloat. The lessons I've learned is that you always have to be thinking ahead. You have to be learning about new technology, new platforms and really be in tune with how people are communicating. You just have to be ahead of the curve, which is part of the reason why I decided to work in digital because I wanted to be able to be versatile in my journalism.

I think Vibe's legacy will be that it covered hip-hop in its golden era. When hip-hop was at its zenith, Vibe chronicled the ups and downs and in betweens of hip-hop and urban culture. Giant's legacy is that it really took urban culture and made it multicultural and edgy and kind of rock and roll. My eulogy would be: Giant was a giant, but sometimes big ideas come in small packages.

"Essence is the authority on Black women and we have a history of great journalism, so we don't do gossip."

What do think is missing in Black media? Describe one magazine or website that has yet to be written that you think needs to be a part of the canon.
It would be nice to have more: more magazines, more websites, more television networks. I think that sometimes we live in a "crabs in a barrel” syndrome in that we think we can only have one Black magazine and one Black website and one Black TV network. But Black people -- and African-Americans specifically -- are very diverse. It would be great to have more to cover the vastness of African-Americans and Black people around the world. I still wonder, specifically in the age of Obama, why we don't have a Black Vanity Fair.

What are three mistakes you made along the way that you would warn journalism students to be mindful of?
I would encourage them to be very versatile in terms of their journalism skills, so print, digital, television. They should be well versed in everything. I would tell them not to drink the Kool-Aid, and I would tell them to start writing their books early in their careers, be they paper or digital.

Essence was once the only media outlet targeting Black women, but today entertainment blogs have built a huge following by focusing on that audience, particularly by serving up gossip. How does Essence.com position itself in the face of that competition?
We are the authority on Black women in the digital landscape, and we have a history of great journalism, so we don't do gossip. What we do is topical and relevant. We have access to celebrities that we leverage and resources as a part of Time Warner. Then we have the heritage and brand weight of Essence to lean on, 40 years of authority on Black beauty and hair. We know that Black women have grown up with us and their mothers have grown up with us, so they feel that this is a community for them. I think that that's something that we have that's different from the other sites.

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Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at www.thewriteordiechick.com.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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