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So What Do You Do, Edward Lewis, Founder of Essence Magazine?

'Other women's magazines weren't talking about black women and we wanted to fill the void.'

By Janelle Harris - July 16, 2014
In the beginning, it was an idea that blossomed into a startup that exploded into a brand that became a legend among publications. Essence has enjoyed unparalleled longevity and relevance in its 44 years of service to a readership of devoted black women. At the helm of that success is Edward Lewis, the last of four men who, in 1968, conceptualized the idea of a magazine for a then-unserved audience. The development of it was part business genius, part tribute to the mothers, wives, sisters and friends who deserved to see their interests, aspirations and stylishness reflected in print. The first issue, published in 1970, launched with just 50,000 copies. It enjoys a circulation of more than 1 million today.

Lewis sold his baby to Time Inc. in 2005, a move that bothered and disappointed many an Essence devotee. "People were saying the voice was going to change. I said, 'Look, the reason why they bought the magazine is because they want the voice,'" Lewis countered. "I would like to see Essence deal with a totality of what it is to be women and, at the same time, what it is to be black in America." Now a senior adviser with Solera Capital, the company that purchased his other business brainchild, Latina, Lewis has chronicled his magazine-making journey in a new book, aptly titled The Man From Essence: Creating a Magazine for Black Women. Here, the media magnate talks about his early publishing days, the current state of black women's magazines and how Essence was almost named... Sapphire.


Name: Edward Lewis
Position: Publisher and entrepreneur
Resume: Enlisted in 1965 in an executive training program at First National City Bank. Worked through the ranks as a financial analyst, on track to become a loan officer, when he attended a conference in 1968 on African-Americans in business. Met four other young men who introduced the concept of a fashion magazine for black women. Left banking gig six months later to co-found what would become Essence. Magazine grew from an initial 50,000 copies in 1970 to more than 1.2 million in circulation today. Served as president and publisher for three decades, growing its multiplatform communications and expanding brand to include consumer products and an annual music festival. Entered into joint venture to create Latina magazine, geared toward Hispanic women, in 1995. Named first black chairman of the Magazine Publishers of America (now the Association of Magazine Media) in 1997, representing more than 700 publications. Sold a portion of Essence to Time Inc. in 2000; the remainder, five years later. Joined private equity firm Solera Capital as a senior adviser. Inducted into Advertising Hall of Fame in 2014.
Birthday: May 15, 1940
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Education: Undergraduate degree and master's in political science with concentration in international relations from University of New Mexico
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: Activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Best career advice received: "Cash is king, queen, jack and everything else."
Last book read: The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin
Guilty pleasures: Anything chocolate and singing the blues.


Why is now the time for a book about the creation of and story behind Essence?
I've been thinking about a book for a number of years, even while I was still CEO of Essence. But I was too close in terms of the day-to-day running of the company. After I sold it, I thought it was an important story because I wanted black women to know that a group of men thought so much of them that we wanted to bring something into the world that would celebrate their beauty and intelligence. Other women's magazines weren't talking about black women and we wanted to fill the void in the marketplace.

Tell us about the developmental stage of the magazine and how focus groups helped your founding team.
The original title of the magazine was not Essence. It was going to be called Sapphire. Going through the civil rights movement, we blacks began to feel good about ourselves. We thought having a magazine called Sapphire translated to 'You're precious and you're a jewel.' We bounced the idea off some black women and they said, 'You've lost your mind.' That name, unbeknownst to us back then, was a put-down. The editor of the magazine, Ruth Ross, suggested Essence, and my former partners and I collectively said 'yes.'

"We thought having a magazine called Sapphire translated to 'You're precious and you're a jewel.' We bounced the idea off some black women and they said, 'You've lost your mind.'"

When Susan Taylor became editor-in-chief in 1981, she said, 'We need to do some research on our market.' And I said, 'I want you to travel the country, listen to what black women have to say, bring that back and translate that into the magazine.' Susan became an icon. People thought she started the magazine. She got a lot of ideas from traveling. When Essence started, we were in the midst of a recession and we've weathered three or four more in our 40+ years. When the country goes through a recession, our circulation grows. We obviously touch a nerve editorially that makes black women say, 'OK, you've got some information that may be useful in our day-to-day lives.' Focus groups were important to keep abreast of what was going on with black women and that translated into the magazine. You've got to stay on top of it.

What is the current rhetoric about black women in the media and how has Essence shaped that?
Black women are en vogue. Essence has been doing a Hollywood luncheon for the past five years, I think. Lupita Nyong'o was recently honored and what she talked about in terms of being a black woman was so moving. We have to continue to raise our voices. I think that women can be too quiet on some issues, like abortion choice and equal pay. They need to be raising the roof on matters like that and Essence needs to be talking about it as well.

Were you surprised about the backlash after Essence hired Ellianna Placas, its first white fashion director, in 2010?
When we started the business, we thought that all we would do is hire an entire black staff. Everything would be black. The reality hit us that a number of us were not working in magazines, so we had to look elsewhere so that we could learn and grow. If I could show you the first staff of Essence, you would see a smattering of whites. The art director was white. Our circulation director, who died last year, was white. He's one of the unsung heroes who helped Essence be what it is today. I had a chief financial officer who was white and did a magnificent job. It has never exceeded more than 10 percent of the entire staff. So the issue about a fashion editor didn't bother me because ultimately, the editor-in-chief makes the final decision about the fashion pages. If they had hired a white beauty editor that would've raised question marks for me because beauty is a whole different area with respect to how black women perceive themselves.

"Women can be too quiet on issues like abortion choice and equal pay. They need to be raising the roof on matters like that and Essence needs to be talking about it as well."

Jet magazine has folded its print copy and is going all digital. Do you think this was a good move?
One of my heroes outside my family is John Johnson, who started Ebony and Jet. The media landscape has changed with respect to how people get information. It's very difficult. It's one of the reasons why I made the decision to sell to Time Inc. when they approached me in 2000. I began to realize that what I call the four P's -- paper, printing, postage and people -- are going to continue to increase in cost. Ebony has gone through some changes with respect to trying to find its editorial feet. In fact, on one level, they're trying to make it look younger than what their audience is. We tried to make the Essence audience look younger and when we did, black women punished us. Our circulation went down and it took us a year to recover. Those are the pressures on Johnson Publishing and Jet.

How did you take what you learned at Essence and apply it to your work with Latina?
Christy Haubegger came to Essence's office in 1995 and told me this idea about a bilingual magazine for Hispanic women called Latina. She'd sent me her business plan and for someone who had not been in the business, it was one of the best I'd ever seen. So that intrigued me. I thought if Essence already had a circulation of over a million, I could help a magazine for Hispanic women. Together, we'd be an incredible marketing force. I also wanted to demonstrate that blacks and Latinos could work together. That's important for both of our communities.

So we put money into Latina and got it off the ground. When I sold the first 49 percent of Essence to Time Inc., in 2000, they already had a magazine called People en Espaņol so they weren't interested in Latina. Molly Ashby, who founded a private equity firm called Solera Capital, had carved out four sectors that she wanted to invest in: media, retail, heath, food. She heard Christy Haubegger speak at a luncheon and decided to make the investment because of the potential of the market. She bought 75 percent of Latina in 2000 and when I sold the remaining 51 percent of Essence to Time, she bought the remaining 25 percent of Latina.

"If you've got the right editorial, you're going to get the circulation and then the advertising."

Other magazines for black women have come and gone. Did you ever feel in competition with them? Is there room for any more?
Oh, there's always room. We wanted to see more black magazines because from our standpoint, more means the market is growing. It wasn't about us saying we're the only game in town and you should only deal with us. Our audience wanted us to do everything. That's a hell of a burden to put on a magazine. We tried to respond and do a fashion magazine called Suede. If there's something I regret, it's that we weren't able to put Suede on the marketplace because I think it would've had some legs if I had been willing to spend the time and money on it.

Magazines like Honey came on the scene at a time when advertising began to downturn. I don't think editorially they struck a nerve with their audience. If you've got the right editorial, you're going to get the circulation and then you're going to get the advertising. I don't know how much money all these other magazines had in order to sustain themselves. Magazines generate a tremendous amount of cash, which people haven't realized. One of the reasons we became valuable to Time Inc. was because we were sitting on $40 million.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook .


NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Keirna Mayo, Editorial Director for Ebony.com?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro 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 Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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