As expected, Ebony magazine’s failure to pay scores of its contributors has landed the iconic African-American publication in court. This week, the National Writers Union filed a lawsuit against Ebony in Cook County Circuit Court, the magazine’s former home in Chicago, on behalf of 38 freelancers.
The plaintiffs joined together to demand belated payments — sometimes very belated — totaling over $70,000.
The lawsuit also names Ebony’s new owner, Clear View Group, an African American-owned private-equity firm which acquired the magazine and its sister publication, 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, and relocated the magazine to Los Angeles.
The group of plaintiffs includes freelance writers, photographers, video producers and graphic designers, all of whom contributed to Ebony or Jet, according to the NWU. Although they are all freelancers, many were “regular contributors” to the magazines, NWU said, with some owed substantial sums for multiple pieces.
Some of the freelancers claim they are owed thousands, with arrears going back well over a year.
NWU president Larry Goldbetter told the Chicago Tribune: “Here’s about 40 freelancers that don't have collective bargaining, but are standing together as a union, and we're going to get them paid.”
Ebony and CVG are already on the defensive in the battle for public opinion.
Back in April, unpaid contributors started a social-media campaign with the hashtag #EbonyOwes, in an attempt to shame the magazine into settling its debts. CVG promised to make good by June 30, but most contributors are still unpaid.
In mid-June, the NWU claimed the magazine still owed its freelancers more than $200,000.
In July, Ebony received a “Thumbs Down Award” from the National Association of Black Journalists, which blasted the publisher for its continuing failure to pay scores of freelancers. 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.”
Some contributors have gone public about their tortuous efforts to get their invoices paid, as well as frequently conflicted feelings about entering into a public dispute with a magazine still revered for its pioneering role as a respected voice for African-American society and culture.