Magazine folks generally love awards, but this is one prize they’re probably not going to frame and hang on the wall.
On July 13, Ebony magazine received the distinct dishonor of a “Thumbs Down Award” from the National Association of Black Journalists, who blasted the publisher for its continuing failure to pay scores of freelancers. If that’s not bad enough, the magazine is also the target of a lawsuit brought on behalf of its aggrieved, unpaid contributors.
The Thumbs Down Award is a stinging indictment, as it’s only presented to organizations or individuals the NABJ judges believe have done something injurious to the African-American community or journalists.
That usually means more obvious offenses, such as allegedly racist or stereotypical reporting in mainstream media. (The other recipient this year is Fox News).
For an African-American publication to be on the receiving end of the award is extraordinary.
Among other issues, NABJ singled out Ebony for “its very public and sometimes offensive responses to reports of late or nonpayment for work already performed by staff or freelance journalists.”
Of course, it’s not unknown for publishers to drag their feet when paying freelancers, who tend to come at the bottom of the payroll totem pole, after full-time employees, suppliers, printers and other contractors, but there are limits.
In this case, the dereliction is egregious, even by the lax standards of the magazine industry.
In mid-June, the National Writers Union claimed the magazine still owed its freelancers more than $200,000, with some waiting over a year for payment.
Back in April unpaid contributors started a social-media campaign with the hashtag #EbonyOwes back in April, in an attempt to shame the magazine into settling its debts. Ebony promised to make good by June 30, but that deadline has gone — and most contributors are still unpaid.
Now the NWU is escalating the struggle with legal action.
Last Wednesday, the union’s lawyers filed a lawsuit against Ebony and its new owner, Clear View Group, an African American-owned private-equity firm which acquired the magazine and its sister title, Jet, from longtime publisher Johnson Publishing last year. (Earlier this year, the new owners laid off most of the magazine’s Chicago staffers, effectively spelling the end of publishing operations there. They relocated the magazine to Los Angeles.)
NWU filed the lawsuit on behalf of 30 writers who are collectively owed around $60,000 by Ebony, or less than one-third of the total arrears.