Two years ago, I ran into a Target on the South Side of Chicago to get a copy of the Ebony magazine I had written a story for.
To see my byline in an iconic magazine, one that I’ve read since I was a kid, was a feeling I will never forget. Even though I had a subscription, my excitement led me to buy four copies from Target that day.
Any journalist dreams of seeing their writing in a well-known publication. And I think that along the way, Ebony (the premier lifestyle magazine for African-Americans) took advantage of many of us who felt that way. They’ve held many writers, editors and photographers hostage with a premise that says “you won’t get your stories published anywhere else.”
Ebony has gone years without paying the people who make their magazine what it is. And many of those folks have taken to social media to put Ebony on front street. The #EbonyOwes hashtag that has been trending via social media since last month has shown everyone how the aforementioned groups are owed thousands of dollars after Ebony said it would pay them.
According to the National Writers Union, Ebony owes more than $200,000 to freelance writers who contributed stories over the past year.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the union is representing 23 writers who are collectively owed about $50,000. There are as many as 50 freelancers who are waiting to be paid.
To call Ebony out wasn’t something my colleagues and I had done lightly.
Black publications such as Ebony and the Chicago Defender, the latter of which gained prominence in the 1910s by telling black people in the South about jobs in the North, have been the lifeline of black life in America. Ebony often showcased the things black people in America cared about.
When news spread about what Ebony’s current administration was doing to their freelancers, I initially tried to stay out of it because of what the iconic magazine means to black people. I didn’t want to be perceived as taking shots at such an illustrious publication.
But then I thought of the times when I was angry about not getting paid on time when I worked for certain media outlets. I thought of those times when not getting a check caused tremendous strain in my personal relationships, especially when a freelance check was expected to cover rent, mortgage, diapers, paying back a friend or family member, and other basic living expenses.
When I wrote a story for Ebony two years ago, I was paid on time by the editor who is now fighting for her lost wages. And by the way, the she wrote the current cover story featuring Grammy Award-winning musician Chance The Rapper.
Ebony is having a great time promoting that story via social media, when the woman who wrote it hasn’t seen a dime.
“Ebony Media values the work of our freelancers and writers. We understand their concerns and we know that their unique talent and dedication to telling our stories have been an integral part of our success,” Ebony said in a statement back in April.
John H. Johnson, who founded Ebony in 1945, ought to be turning in his grave. He knew the importance of Ebony to journalism in America.
“What we’re doing with Ebony is needed by everybody,” Johnson told the Washington Post in 1980. “The kind of thing we’ve provided for blacks is needed by whites, too.”
Journalism can’t last when the people who’ve made it possible aren’t properly compensated.
And Ebony knows what they need to do.
Ebony, pay what you owe.
— Evan F. Moore writes Fanning the Flames Since 1978, a syndicated column for GateHouse Media. He writes about the intersection of race, violence and culture. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune and Ebony. Follow him on Twitter @evanfmoore.