h1

Ebony Magazine: Keeping The Unique Black Experience Alive. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Kierna Mayo, Editor-In-Chief.

August 6, 2015

“I believe that magazines will never die. I really do believe that. I think that they will transform and continue to evolve, as they have forever. I believe that black magazines will continue. I think that we will continue to have unique challenges, but also unique successes. Again, as long as the black experience remains a distinctly unique one from the “American” experience, per se, there will be a market for a particular lens. There will be a market for a particular perspective. And I think when you understand that; you understand that black magazines will always have a certain impact. And as you said, the reason there was such a reaction (to the August cover of Ebony) may very well be in part due to the fact that this statement was made on paper.” Kierna Mayo

0815_Cover.indd Founded by John H. Johnson, Ebony has been an active voice for the African-American community for 70 years. The cover has featured prominent African-American celebrities and politicians, ranging from Diana Ross to President Obama, and the magazine itself has always sought to present a positive and life-affirming view for its readers.

Never has that inspiring outlook and voice of positivity been more needed than today. Ebony has been a beacon of faith in the African-American community.

The cover of the recent issue of Ebony is one that is both powerful, and in some cases, controversial. “America Loves Black People Culture,” with the word “Culture” superimposed over the word “People.” I spoke with Ebony’s new Editor-In-Chief, Kierna Mayo, recently about the statement the cover made and also about the magazine in general. In her editor’s letter of the same issue, Kierna talks about the fact that many white people are fascinated and in love with the black way of life, its culture and uniqueness, but not necessarily black people. It’s a thought-provoking and dynamic observation. One that is both timely and provocative, considering the horrendous tragedies that have occurred recently in the United States involving black Americans.

Kierna Mayo is a woman who is very familiar with Ebony, having grown up with the magazine long before she ever started working for it. She is proud of John Johnson’s vision and determined to always “do what feels right” to her, in order to carry it on into Ebony’s future. She holds herself accountable as editor-in-chief for that responsibility and is not a woman who takes her duties lightly. Her strong and positive voice is in tune with the magazine and reflects its mission succinctly.

I hope you enjoy this extremely timely and riveting Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman who believes that Ebony is one reason America still needs black magazines. The unique black experience is something that Ebony reflects naturally, always has and always will.

But first, the sound-bites:


Kierna Mayo On the reaction of readers to the powerful cover image gracing the current issue of Ebony:
The reaction has been pretty universal, I would say; particularly from black people. They feel very understood, because there are many sentiments that we share as African-Americans, some of them quite frankly are just unspoken because they’re so commonplace. And I think this might be one of them. There’s just universality in the statement in terms of the black experience. I think most people understand it to be explicitly true.

On having two different covers for the current issue, one on the inside of the magazine and that made a slightly different statement from the cover actually used: There was quite a bit of conversation about which way to go from the onset. Initially, we wanted to do an illustration for this cover, a literal illustration of a white family depicting what we meant by the appreciation of black culture but maybe not so much black people. We went around and around about it; we had lots of debates. The cover you saw on the inside was actually one of the versions. I don’t think I saw it as choosing one that was softer at the time; the language was exactly the same.

On whether she feels there’s still a need for a black magazine in today’s marketplace:
Yes, I would have to say so. To the extent that there’s always going to be something very specific and unique about the black experience in America. I think black people deserve, and quite frankly, need a place that is exclusive to them. We have this dual identity and as Americans that built this country, many Americans have a hyphen; many Americans have a dual identity, but not many other groups have literally built this country from the ground up in the way African-Americans have.

On how she foresees John Johnson’s vision, which began 70 years before, moving into the future: When I think about my role or more importantly my responsibility now as an editor as it relates to Mr. Johnson’s brave vision, I think the most important thing that I can do is remain authentic. If I can do what I believe or lead the team and lead the magazine in the direction that I truly believe is healthy, progressive and timely for black people, then I’m doing the right thing.

On the major stumbling block that she faces:
One major stumbling block, and I don’t know that it’s unique to Ebony; it’s a stumbling block that many magazines have today, and that is newsstand. Newsstand numbers dwindle across the board and folks have their fingers crossed every time they put out a book. I don’t think that we are any different. We hope that we resonate; we hope that we are worth your time and money in a world that begins with www.

On whether she believes there’s a future for print, especially when it comes to magazines specifically for black people:
I do; I do. I believe that magazines will never die. I really do believe that. I think that they will transform and continue to evolve, as they have forever. I believe that black magazines will continue. I think that we will continue to have unique challenges, but also unique successes. Again, as long as the black experience remains a distinctly unique one from the “American” experience, per se, there will be a market for a particular lens. There will be a market for a particular perspective.

On the difference for specifically-black magazines when it comes to the targeted content they once had, compared to the broad coverage black people get today throughout all magazines:
It’s not just the change in the content for black magazines; it’s the fact that what has historically been content for black magazines is now content for so many other magazines. That’s really the game changer and what is markedly different from when I was editor-in-chief of Honey magazine. We understood black celebrities, in some sense, to be “ours,” simply because there was so much neglect when it came to the coverage of black stars. The field was wide opened and the stars were ours for the picking.

On the possibility that Jet magazine’s demise in print could have been due to black celebrities being covered by all genres’ of magazines today:
I’m not sure that I agree that a black celebrity publication couldn’t survive. I still believe that perspective is a very important thing. And the way you do things; the language you use and the images you use; it’s all a pie. There are many, many elements that go into making a pie work, rise, be delicious, or fall flat.

On what makes her tick and click and motivates her to get out of bed in the mornings:
Aside from my children; I have three sons and one daughter; a lot of my friends will remark about how my career is just aligned with my true path, because people who have known me for a very long time know that I have had a magazine obsession since my teenaged years. And I’ve always hoarded magazines and collected them.

On whether she felt any competition when First Lady Michelle Obama recently guest edited More Magazine:
No, I didn’t think that at all. Again, the First Lady is covered everywhere. And it’s just a very unique time, because the First Lady just happens to be a black person. It doesn’t shock me at all at this point, and I don’t see coverage of the First Lady or the president in any way competitive with us. It’s a matter of fact that the country would have to cover the leadership of the country. But I think Michelle Obama herself happens to be a brilliant woman, so kudos to More for scoring that one. It was great.

On anything else that she’d like to add:
Yes; you’d asked before about what some of our challenges were and I really need to say to my audience that subscriptions are critical. Supporting Ebony magazine is really an important thing. No, that information is traded online and you can see the cover; I’ve gotten tens of thousands of likes and clicks and all of that’s lovely, but if you don’t go out and support the magazine, it’ll be very hard for us to continue.

On what keeps her up at night:
Again, I think it’s similar to what wakes me up in the morning. I try to have a life that’s lived in relative balance, relative with a capital “R.” I am up at night when I’m concerned about an idea or I am concerned about a human related to an idea. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Kierna Mayo, Editor-In-Chief, Ebony magazine.

Samir Husni: What has been the reaction so far to this change from a celebrity cover to the powerful cover image used for the current issue of Ebony?

Kierna Mayo: The reaction has been pretty universal, I would say; particularly from black people. They feel very understood, because there are many sentiments that we share as African-Americans, some of them quite frankly are just unspoken because they’re so commonplace. And I think this might be one of them. There’s just universality in the statement in terms of the black experience. I think most people understand it to be explicitly true.

There was a reaction that was quite favorable because people felt heard, seen and very much like, that is so cool Ebony. People think it’s something new, but actually for us at Ebony this is something that the magazine has done over the course of 70 years. There have been several covers that have been very explicit, very direct, without relying on a celebrity in any way, and they have been statement-making as well.

ebony2-2 Samir Husni: You put another version of the cover inside the magazine alongside your letter from the editor, with a slightly different statement. What made you decide to soften the cover you used a little bit from that one?

Kierna Mayo: You saw it as softening it? I tried to capture a little bit about this in the editor’s letter. There was quite a bit of conversation about which way to go from the onset. Initially, we wanted to do an illustration for this cover, a literal illustration of a white family depicting what we meant by the appreciation of black culture but maybe not so much black people.

We went around and around about it; we had lots of debates. The cover you saw on the inside was actually one of the versions. I don’t think I saw it as choosing one that was softer at the time; the language was exactly the same. But there are different impulses that are created with a big red heart that we wanted to move away from, so six or half dozen; maybe that one would have been equally as received, maybe not. You never know when you’re creating magazines. It’s one part science and the other part gut.

Samir Husni: Is there still a need for a black magazine in today’s marketplace, today’s society; in today’s United States?

Kierna Mayo: Yes, I would have to say so. To the extent that there’s always going to be something very specific and unique about the black experience in America. I think black people deserve, and quite frankly, need a place that is exclusive to them. We have this dual identity and as Americans that built this country, many Americans have a hyphen; many Americans have a dual identity, but not many other groups have literally built this country from the ground up in the way African-Americans have.

So, our American-ness is very real, and yes; it is a shared thing, and yes; there are many other places that we indulge and grab information from in ways that other Americans do, but that said, we have such a unique history here. And our lens is something that is special. And there are many times in many spaces in our lives as black people in this country that we don’t feel safe enough or clear enough to express the world through our lens, but when there’s a conversation with black people for black people by black people, there’s a paradigm shift that most African-Americans can appreciate and I think it’s why Ebony has been around for 70 years.

Samir Husni: As you assume your new role as editor-in-chief and continue to be in charge of the digital side; how do you foresee that vision that John Johnson began 70 years ago moving into the future?

Kierna Mayo: Just a quick clarification; I don’t run digital day-to-day anymore. There is a new person on the digital side, although I do still play a digital role. But John Johnson’s vision is something that impacted me quite frankly, long before I got to Ebony magazine. Like most black people in this country, especially if you’re over a certain age, the black experience is very tied to the Ebony experience. It’s been around literally my entire life.

When I think about my role or more importantly my responsibility now as an editor as it relates to Mr. Johnson’s brave vision, I think the most important thing that I can do is remain authentic. If I can do what I believe or lead the team and lead the magazine in the direction that I truly believe is healthy, progressive and timely for black people, then I’m doing the right thing.

And that, I believe, is what the Ebony magic has always been. And there have been times when we’ve nailed it and there have been times when we’ve missed. But show me a magazine that doesn’t have that story to its history.

In terms of being a maverick and true to what black people need, when black people need it; that is what Ebony does. And I’m here for it.

Samir Husni: What do you think will be the major stumbling block facing you and how are you going to overcome it?

Kierna Mayo: One major stumbling block, and I don’t know that it’s unique to Ebony; it’s a stumbling block that many magazines have today, and that is newsstand. Newsstand numbers dwindle across the board and folks have their fingers crossed every time they put out a book. I don’t think that we are any different. We hope that we resonate; we hope that we are worth your time and money in a world that begins with “www.”

But I’m very faithful that what we do is something that black people understand to be specifically for them. And I’m trying not to live by fear, but to really take a deep breath and have some faith and do what we all think collectively is the right thing to do.

Samir Husni: And do you think if you had used the current powerful cover of Ebony on the web instead of in print it would have had the same impact? Do you think that we have a future for print, specifically for black magazines?

Kierna Mayo: I do; I do. I believe that magazines will never die. I really do believe that. I think that they will transform and continue to evolve, as they have forever. I believe that black magazines will continue. I think that we will continue to have unique challenges, but also unique successes. Again, as long as the black experience remains a distinctly unique one from the “American” experience, per se, there will be a market for a particular lens. There will be a market for a particular perspective. And I think when you understand that; you understand that black magazines will always have a certain impact. And as you said, the reason there was such a reaction may very well be in part due to the fact that this statement was made on paper.

Now there are people who have seen it first online, meaning that they’ve seen the image online, but they understand that it is actually on paper.

Samir Husni: You were the founding editor of Honey magazine and now you’re the editor-in-chief of Ebony and you and I have talked about the fact that many types of magazines are featuring black people on their covers these days. How do you feel that the change in the nature of the content, since your days at Honey and up until now at Ebony, is going to impact the future of black magazines?

Kierna Mayo: It’s not just the change in the content for black magazines; it’s the fact that what has historically been content for black magazines is now content for so many other magazines. That’s really the game changer and what is markedly different from when I was editor-in-chief of Honey magazine.

We understood black celebrities, in some sense, to be “ours,” simply because there was so much neglect when it came to the coverage of black stars. The field was wide opened and the stars were ours for the picking.

Now, you fight in many respects to get black stars to even commit to black publications simply because they believe they no longer “have to.”

Samir Husni: And that may be one of the reasons for the demise of the print edition of Jet, because of the fact that it was strictly celebrity-based content.

Kierna Mayo: I’m not sure that I agree that a black celebrity publication couldn’t survive. I still believe that perspective is a very important thing. And the way you do things; the language you use and the images you use; it’s all a pie. There are many, many elements that go into making a pie work, rise, be delicious, or fall flat. I’m not sure that I believe that there’s no need for it. But yes, absolutely; there’s greater competition for the celebrities themselves and there are more people covering the same stars. It’s still a very different way that I am going to cover Tina Knowles than InStyle would, quite frankly.

Samir Husni: So, are you going to lead the fight to bring Jet back?

Kierna Mayo: (Laughs).

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Kierna Mayo: Jet mag.com is alive and well, by the way. And there’s a lot going on with the Jet brand, so it’s not as though it has died. But it has transformed. But I do understand what you’re asking with Jet “print.” Subjectively speaking, of course, there’s a yearning to hold onto things that once were. But there have been many print magazine losses, as you know, Mr. Magazine™. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Kierna Mayo: Some things are just part of a changing market. And we are an independent company and it made sense for us at a certain point to shift our focus in the way that we did; to move to digital in the way that we did and are continuing with Jet. It’s just a sign of the times. What can I say? Some people think it happened just because it was a celebrity magazine, but Jet was lifestyle for many years. For black people who read Jet, I don’t think they just saw it as celebrity; I think they saw it as news and information, perspective and weddings; it was the Internet, quite frankly, before there was one.

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click and motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings and say, hey, it’s going to be a great day?

Kierna Mayo: Aside from my children; I have three sons and one daughter; a lot of my friends will remark about how my career is just aligned with my true path, because people who have known me for a very long time know that I have had a magazine obsession since my teenaged years. And I’ve always hoarded magazines and collected them. And I’ve always been able to discern where such and such magazine is in my room or wherever it might be.

To be cliché, but meaning to be, this is the air that I breathe. I’m a magazine person. So, to be invited to come back to print after many, many years in digital, is very titillating for me and it’s exciting in a pure way.

As a magazine maker I understand content. And I think that’s what gave me success on the digital side and that’s what I think will continue to give me a certain amount of success in any form of media. It really is about appreciation for the audience and understanding the medium. And magazines are truly special and I’ve spent the majority of my career crafting them in one way or another. It’s an honor. My getting up every day will never be solely about a job in terms of just a place where one goes to get a paycheck; it’s my whole life that’s in consideration when I wake up every morning and I do what feels right as long as it does feel right.

Samir Husni: When the First Lady edited More Magazine last month; it was the first time a sitting First Lady in the history of magazines, and among all of the first ladies, had edited a magazine; what was your feeling about that? Did you feel as though she was competing with you or did you say, wow, that’s great? Can you describe how you felt about More’s coup?

Kierna Mayo: No, I didn’t think that at all. Again, the First Lady is covered everywhere. And it’s just a very unique time, because the First Lady just happens to be a black person. It doesn’t shock me at all at this point, and I don’t see coverage of the First Lady or the president in any way competitive with us. It’s a matter of fact that the country would have to cover the readership of the country. But I think Michelle Obama herself happens to be a brilliant woman, so kudos to More for scoring that one. It was great.

And that’s not to say that we wouldn’t do something similar and haven’t done so in the past. We’ve had guest editors; we’ve experimented too. I think what’s exciting about what More Magazine did was the experimentation and that’s something that we definitely do at Ebony.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Kierna Mayo: Yes; you’d asked before about what some of our challenges were and I really need to say to my audience that subscriptions are critical. Supporting Ebony magazine is really an important thing. Now that information is traded online and you can see the cover there; I’ve gotten tens of thousands of likes and clicks and all of that’s lovely, but if you don’t go out and support the magazine, it’ll be very hard for us to continue.

So, that’s the message that I have to continue to speak to, because I understand the business of publishing and from that perspective, it is just critical that no one takes us for granted.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Kierna Mayo: Again, I think it’s similar to what wakes me up in the morning. I try to have a life that’s lived in relative balance, relative with a capital “R.” I am up at night when I’m concerned about an idea or I am concerned about a human related to an idea. (Laughs)

There are different things that can keep me up at night, but more importantly I try to sleep. (Laughs) I try to sleep. It’s going to get done, as the guys in my office say: the cake is going to get baked.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: