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So What Do You Do, Amy DuBois Barnett, Editor-in-Chief of Ebony?

"There's no other media brand in the African-American community that does what Ebony does."

By Janelle Harris - December 14, 2011
It's hard to please everybody. So, imagine taking the helm of a magazine with a 65-year history and legions of readers -- and critics -- who want to see its glory days be a thing of its present, not its past. With the tastes of millions to consider, you better say something good.

That was the gauntlet laid in front of Amy DuBois Barnett when she accepted the job of editor-in-chief at Ebony, which was limping from lagging circulation and advertising. The former EIC of Teen People became the first African-American woman to head a mainstream pub when she took that brand from ho-hum to hot. She sprinkled similar magic over Ebony, redesigning it and making it one of the 25 fastest-growing consumer magazines. Barnett, who's also one of the 50 most beautiful Chicagoans, talked to us about her journey, satisfying readers and how to reinvent a legend.


Name: Amy DuBois Barnett
Position: Editor-in-chief of Ebony
Resume: Worked in finance and as an assistant buyer at Lord & Taylor before breaking into journalism as a freelancer for Fashion Almanac while studying in Columbia University's MFA program. Made major impact as EIC of Black girl bible Honey as well as Teen People, and served as lifestyle editor at Essence and deputy editor-in-chief at Harper's Bazaar before starting own consulting business, Polymath Media. Published Get Yours!: How to Have Everything You Ever Dreamed of and More in 2008. Became EIC of Ebony in June 2010.
Birthday: September 5
Hometown: New York City
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and French from Brown University. Studied writing and literature at University College in Dublin. MFA in creative writing from Columbia University
Marital status: Divorced
Media idol: John H. Johnson
Favorite TV show: Gossip Girl
Guilty pleasure: See above
Last book read: Pym by Mat Johnson
Twitter handle: @amydbarnett


Chicago's not as big a publishing capitol as New York. How does Johnson Publications' location affect the types of stories you cover?
I think it was really important for me to be located in Chicago to run Ebony, because I think that the mistake that a lot of editors-in-chief make is to get too New York-centric in our coverage and our perspective. It's really great to be able to more accurately portray the aesthetics and concerns and overarching perspectives of the people that I'm really trying to talk to, particularly for the audience that Ebony is targeting.

You had quite an interesting, albeit indirect, path to journalism. How did each experience make you a better editor and magazine aficionada?
Being a journalist and certainly working in the magazine world, I think it's incredibly important to have a diverse set of experiences before you really focus on the profession, because everything that you do informs who you are as an editor and broadens your perspective and horizons and makes you a better journalist. I always tell people who want to go straight from college into journalism school or into working for a newspaper or magazine or website, just stop. Take a minute and go do something else, because you're going to be a better journalist and certainly a better magazine editor after you do that. I mean right now, because I've been able to work in the fashion industry and the finance industry, lived on three continents, traveled all over the world, had a broad range of experiences -- that makes me a very solid journalist with a broad perspective and a true ability to empathize with different target demographics.

"I always tell people who want to go straight from college into journalism school or into working for a newspaper or magazine or website, just stop."

Ebony has been long criticized for being out of touch with issues and trends in the Black community. How do you tackle the challenge of making it relevant to contemporary tastes but still staying true to the Ebony that we've known and obviously appreciated for so many years?
Well, that was my mandate when I took over. Ebony is obviously an iconic brand -- it's the oldest and largest magazine targeting African-Americans -- but I was tasked with trying to figure out how to make it resonate and relevant to the next generation of readers. It's really a matter of respecting everything that it has meant to our community for the past 65 years while at the same time incorporating the aesthetics, concerns and issues relative to them. So right now, when I picture who I'm speaking to, I think about a reader who's in their early to mid 30s. I think not only about the demographic of them being African-American or located in the big city, but I also think about the psychographic of them being very goal-oriented, urban, interested, engaged, stylish individuals who want to have fun, want to be involved in their community, want to know what's happening in the Black world, are involved with what's happening with the world at large, like to travel, like to have experiences, at the same time like to go home for Thanksgiving. That's the real psychographic profile that I've got in my head about who Iím talking to with the new Ebony.

The mag has also taken flack for its "fluff pieces" on Black celebs and leaders. Do you plan to challenge the subjects you cover more?
I don't think anybody can look at the Ebony of the past year and a half and accuse it of being fluffy or superficial. I've been very proud of some of the packages that we've done on Detroit and on Black men and on education and multiracial culture in America, to name a few examples. We've been very clear about our mission of informing and empowering the African-American community, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive from a broad range of pacemakers and pundits alike. Everybody from Roland Martin to Al Sharpton have been very complimentary about where the magazine has been going recently, and we plan on continuing in that direction.

You also published a recent all-comedy and all-music issue, themes that honestly look more Vibe than Ebony. Is that a conscious decision to target readers of other mags? Who would you say your competitors are now?
First of all, I would say that I don't think we've executed any packages that have been themed or derivative on any level. There's no other media brand in the African-American community that does what Ebony does, which is to put out a real profound mix of political and social issues, as well as entertainment and culture, as well as relevant and cool styles. It's a mixture that I think represented a real void in a way that the African-American community was being spoken to. So, I think Ebony is doing something that's very unique. I'm focused on speaking to my target demographic, and I certainly welcome any consumers of any media who would like to become a member of the Ebony family. Obviously, we welcome anybody aboard.

Any negative feedback from Ebony's older, "legacy" readers?
The positive response to the redesign is so overwhelming. It's so gratifying. It's been incredible, the numbers of people who've written in, called in, told me on the street how much they love what's happening at Ebony and how they're so pleased and so proud. I was expecting a lot more resistance to be honest. Every now and then, we'll get an email or a letter from a real old-timer saying, "Can you please increase the font size? I can't read it." But there's nothing I can really do about that. Other than those, the response has been really positive.

"I don't think anybody can look at the Ebony of the past year and a half and accuse it of being fluffy or superficial."

So you don't consider anyone a direct competitor?
Ebony is a very unique brand. I don't think there's any other media brand that's speaking to our community in the particular way that we are. So I think that unique voice, perspective and content sets us apart.

The mag also hired former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers as CEO. What influence/direction has she had over the editorial content?
Desiree has been very supportive of my vision, and I feel very fortunate to have a boss who's given the level of autonomy that I've received.

A lot of young, Black women still cherish the memories of Honey. I still have all of my old issues. What's Honey's legacy in the Black magazine canon?
Ahh, I miss my Honey. That was such a special magazine and such a special experience. I don't think anything could have duplicated what that magazine meant for young, Black women in the early 90s. I think that for all of us who were working there, we were basically creating a magazine for us and by us. And I think that it was received in that way, and it just created a community of women that had never really had anything that spoke to us and united us from our perspective before. And nothing really has since. I'm proud of the fact that the brand still exists online, of course, but I run into people everyday who miss Honey the magazine. [Editor's note: HoneyMag.com folded recently, as well.]

Younger readers are so distracted by celebrity gossip and sensationalized blogs. So, do you bend to that taste, or do you try to sell them on real, hardnosed journalism?
People are very supportive of the message that Ebony puts forth, and I think that the way to do it is to make sure that when you're giving people information about what's happening in their community, their government and their world in a more serious way, it just can't be monolithic. It has to be that information in a compelling, resonant way coupled with the entertaining, cool information, so it doesn't feel like you're reading the Black version of Time. I think that what we've done is give people the information that they want -- because they actually do want to know what's going on in their government and community -- but also do it within the context of a mix that's entertaining, informative, inspiring and empowering.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Brandon Holley, Editor-in-Chief of Lucky?


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

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2011. 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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