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So What Do You Do, Leonard Burnett, Co-CEO and Group Publisher of Uptown Media Group?

Vibe's new owner breathes new life into the recently collapsed pub and reveals his plans for sustaining the brand

By David Hirschman - November 4, 2009
When Vibe closed down in June of this year, it was the end of an era for the iconic urban music and culture magazine. Following the closing, founder Quincy Jones said "They messed my magazine all up," and vowed to relaunch it with a focus on online. But it was Uptown Media -- the company co-founded by another Vibe veteran, Leonard Burnett -- that bought the title in August with plans to resurrect Vibe's unique perspective both online and off. With the mag's first new issue set to drop on December 8th, mediabistro.com met with Burnett recently in Uptown Media's Harlem offices to talk about his career, how the new incarnation of Vibe will be different, and the future of magazines online.


Name: Leonard Burnett
Position: Co-CEO and group publisher, Uptown Media Group. Vice President and group publisher, Vibe Media Group
Birthdate: April 18, 1964
Hometown: Detroit
Education: B.A. from Florida A&M
Resume: Launched Urban Profile magazine with friend Keith Clinkscales in 1987. Sold the publication to Career Communications Group five years later and joined Vibe ahead of its launch. Left in 1999 to found Vanguard Media, which went out of business a few years later. Started Uptown Media in 2004. Went back to work at Vibe in 2005, and then finally bowed out in 2007 to work on Uptown full-time.
Marital status: Married with two children.
Favorite TV show: Sportscenter or Countdown With Keith Olbermann.
First section of the Sunday Times: Business
Last book read: The Family by Jeff Sharlet.
Guilty pleasure: Golf

Tell me a little about how you got started and how it led to where you are today.
Well, I got out of college and knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur -- my family was in franchising, so I thought about doing that. For a while, I was working for a company called Baxter Healthcare, in sales. Then I moved to New York with a buddy of mine, Keith Clinkscales. We started a magazine called Urban Profile.

It was around the time of the Tawana Brawley case and Bernard Goetz, and a lot of information on the news didn't really sew in a perspective of African-Americans, and we didn't necessarily agree with it, per se. So whenever something bad happened and they spoke to certain people, they either didn't articulate it from our perspective -- or it just wasn't representative of young, college-educated African-Americans. So it was a magazine about social and political issues from the young, black perspective. There was a movement at the time of "yuppies" and "buppies" -- the guys who didn't care about the community and were just working up the corporate ladder -- and we felt there was a betweener; people who were definitely working toward becoming urban professionals, but who were also looking for a connection to their community and wanted to see things that were positive and uplifting.

That lasted about five years. Then we sold the company -- sold the debt -- to a company called Career Communications Group. We were there another year or so working for them, but then we saw the first test issue of Vibe, and there was more edge in that issue than in our whole career up until then. And a little while later we got a call from Time Inc. asking if we were interested in coming up to New York to launch this new magazine. And we were.

I left there in '99 to start a company called Vanguard Media, which then came to own Honey, Heart and Soul, Savoy, and the Impact Music Conference. This was during the dot-com era, and we raised private equity money, and eventually we sort of ran out of runway.

In 2004, we started Uptown. We're magazine junkies. Brett [Wright] and I both lived in Harlem, and had always talked about doing a magazine, originally to service this new renaissance of Harlem. And then we realized that there was an opportunity not just for New York but to expand it and use the Niche Media model and the Modern Luxury model to roll out these regional titles that are luxury and affluent for this underserved market. So we're a national magazine with regional editions in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, D.C. and Charlotte -- they've got local content surrounded by mostly national content. They each have about 30,000 copies per market. I went back to Vibe in 2005, then left in 2007 after Brett and I raised money to do [Uptown] full-time.

"While you don't want to ... say, 'We want [Vibe] to be like it used to be,' -- there's a respect and there's some institutional knowledge that you can take from the past into your new vision and the new way of thinking for the brand."

Now that you've got Vibe in the fold, will the two magazines share content at all?
Not on the print side, I don't think. What we're going to find and do on the digital side I think is share resources -- across the board. From a content perspective, sharing would not be the right word, but if there's a story on healthcare, or a story about what Kanye [West] did, the certainly there is a tempo and a tune to it that would speak more to the Vibe audience. And there's a different tonality that would come from the Uptown perspective.

Given this special experience of print, how do you think magazine content (the big pictures and longer articles, et cetera.) then translates online?
I think you have to adapt and adjust it. I think one of the things that [The Audit Bureau of Circulations] is struggling with is this idea of having digital sub-copies, and putting regulations on how your magazine has to look as a digital piece -- that it has to look enough like the print edition to be considered. But that's not the way a consumer wants to look at their digital read. So maybe it's not going to have all the beautiful pictures -- which is what makes print so special -- but the way you get the content and the things that you can do to bring that 360 [degree element] to the content with video and links and music and B-roll will make that relationship with the magazine online become a special moment.

Where do you think the past incarnation of Vibe went wrong, and what's going to be different this time around?
It was really a perfect storm. I think that over the years, there was a lack of investment into the brand itself, specifically on the digital side and on the brand outside just the print vehicle. Vibe's revenue was 90-some-odd percent from print. And during the years when it was making an awful lot of money, there was never any true investment into building out these other areas. And then fast-forward into the early 2000's when they're making less money and they're still not investing in [online] and still not really figuring out ways to adjust to what was then a lot of digital opportunities.

Then the advertising environment just really propelled a bad situation to become even worse. Vibe thrived off of urban fashion, music, and automotive -- and then when you go into '05, '06, and '07 [the advertising] just kept deteriorating. First it was a shift over to digital [for advertisers] and then when the dollars started to even back out, the dollars that you are counting on for the print side in certain categories just started to evaporate at a much faster rate than we were able to break new categories.

The book also didn't lend itself [to these new categories]. [Vibe's] aesthetic perspective and editorial focus [originally spoke] to a very broad and important perspective of what urban music and culture meant (which really wasn't just rap, but R&B, reggae, and gospel, and anything you can move and dance to -- and even where the consumer was going with the blending of Jay-Z and Coldplay, and this sort of rap and alternative rock). We went from being the kind of Rolling Stone of urban culture to competing with The Source and XXL. These are great books, but... Rolling Stone is really the music and culture magazine that has stood the test of time -- and when you look at the breadth of what they have with the core of it being rock 'n roll, mixing the old with the new and the influx of urban, and the political scene, the fashion scene.

"In digital today, you've got to have a vision -- you want to know where you want to go, and you want to be able to adapt and adjust to the digital things that are coming on every day. You don't want to just hang your hat on Twitter or Facebook."

So now, from an editorial perspective, we are going back to an editorial discussion that was much broader than it was. It has a lot better visuals. We're going back to great photography, which was always such a big component of the editorial product. The book will be much more visual and have a better quality of paper. The consumer should look up to Vibe -- Vibe is showing them something that they don't know about, and give them something to aspire to. Not like Uptown, but something new and on the cutting edge.

Is the digital product going to be all original content? Are you going to be doing some aggregation?
It's a combination of both. There is going to be a distinct, clear editorial voice and perspective of Vibe, but at the end of the day coming out with something new on digital is tough to do. What we want to say is, 'You are a Vibe reader? What are your interests? Fashion, culture, politics, music.' We want to be the place you come to that has aggregated all of this stuff -- a product with a distinct voice about it, but also a one-stop shop where you can find the information online from your own Vibe perspective. So it'll be a combination of blogs, aggregated content, video, social media, iPhone. In digital today, you've got to have a vision -- you want to know where you want to go, and you want to be able to adapt and adjust to the digital things that are coming on every day. You don't want to just hang your hat on Twitter or Facebook; we're going to have all that stuff, but there's going to be new stuff that comes along the way. Our motto is going to be that we want to be able to try anything that we think is going to be useful to us as a social media opportunity. We want to measure it quickly and see if it works (its ability to drive traffic and engage the consumer), and if it doesn't work, then get off of it. We're not even in the radio era of digital, and it's going to change. And so you want to build upon a platform that's agile enough to adjust and test and try, and invest in what works. The idea is to allow the consumer to be part of that process.

While keeping the Vibe brand, you did bring in a new top editor. Was that a conscious break with the past?
I think Danyel [Smith], who had been part of the team that was part of the first test issue and had been with Vibe for most of its years, did a great job in a tough environment. But I do believe that there is a need to have a voice from a different perspective that also has some digital experience, while still having some of the past successes of Vibe and being a part of it. [New editor Jermaine Hall] was an intern back in the day, and -- while you don't want to rest on your laurels and say, 'We want Vibe to be like it used to be,' -- there's a respect and there's some institutional knowledge that you can take from the past into your new vision and the new way of thinking for the brand.

The idea of paid subscriptions and paid content has made a big comeback lately. What do you think of charging for online content, and do you think that would work with Uptown Media's properties?
I think once you let the horse out of the gate, to bring that back is tough. I don't think the idea of paying for content in its standard form is anything that's going to happen. But what can you provide extra that someone is willing to pay a nominal fee for? ESPN has done some interesting things in having ESPN Insider where you get digital access, but then included in that is a subscription to the magazine.

What can we do from a digital perspective to allow a consumer to get information that they want and will want to pay for? We're still in the Dark Ages of this, so I think as new technology comes out and new ways to use technology comes out, I think you'll find new ways to ask to pay for access to stuff. I think there are ways to monetize certain kinds of e-commerce from big and small brands -- where you see what's in the magazine and see what's online and have people purchase it and get a commission there. If you're reaching millions of consumers, how can you produce something, such as Uptown-branded stuff, that people will want?


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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