Amy DuBois Barnett, editor-in-chief, Ebony magazine
Editor a vibrant new face for 66-year-old Ebony magazine
Amy DuBois Barnett changed the architecture of Ebony, creating sections on politics, activism, fashion, business, health and wellness. She adjusted ad placement so the longest stories could run without interruption. (Antonio Perez / June 13, 2012)
In its pages, African-Americans saw intimate images of people who looked like them. They read about contentious issues that spoke to them. Circulation skyrocketed as Ebony became a crucial cultural voice.
But that was decades ago, before the Internet and more mainstream coverage of African-Americans ravaged circulation at Ebony, owned by Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. Something drastic needed to happen, and more than 700 miles away, magazine-industry veteran Amy DuBois Barnett thought she could help.
"It has always been a dream of mine to just touch the Ebony brand," said Barnett, 42. "I mean, it is the most iconic magazine for our community."
So two years ago, Barnett wrote Johnson Publishing Chairman Linda Johnson Rice an introductory email from New York brimming with ideas on ways to redesign Ebony and remake it into a brand that would resonate with a new generation of readers while it sought to retain its most loyal subscribers. Rice invited her to lunch at the Custom House Tavern to discuss her thoughts and, six months later, welcomed Barnett to Chicago as Ebony's new editor-in-chief.
Within months after her name first appeared on Ebony's masthead, Barnett led the 66-year-old magazine's first cover-to-cover redesign, starting with the logo. Barnett tore the magazine apart and resculpted it, "basically dragging it by its ear into the 21st century," she said. Earlier this year, she rolled out a new Ebony website with dramatic photos and a category of the day's top stories called "Black Listed."
Her changes have made an impact. Unique monthly visitors to the Ebony website, according to Johnson Publishing, have doubled since the site's January redesign. Advertising Age hailed Ebony as the 13th fastest-growing magazine in the nation last year, citing a circulation jump from 1.1 million in the first half of 2010 to 1.23 million in the first half of 2011.
In the second half of last year, Ebony's circulation climbed to 1.26 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That figure is far from its zenith of 2 million in the mid-1990s, but it allows the magazine to hit its 1.25 million rate base, or guaranteed circulation number for advertisers, an accomplishment Rice called "a relief, let me tell you."
Rice's father, John H. Johnson, and mother, Eunice Johnson, started Ebony in November 1945; the company also publishes Jet magazine and owns Fashion Fair cosmetics. A few months after hiring Barnett, Rice also brought in longtime friend Desiree Rogers to be Johnson Publishing's chief executive.
Rice attributed the improved circulation numbers to Barnett's visual and textual changes, which she said strengthened the content of the magazine.
"What was important to me about Amy is that she brought more of a voice to Ebony," Rice said. "We had drifted a little bit. She built a strong perspective without losing the core of Ebony, which is about aspiration."
It's also about the black experience as a whole, and Barnett's own is anything but a placid one. Week to week, she can be found at the White House interviewing first lady Michelle Obama, dressed up at music mogul Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party, or simply enjoying the Museum of Science and Industry with her 5-year-old son, Max.
Inspired by mother
It's with Max that Barnett began a recent Thursday morning. His full name is Max Robeson Brown; just as Barnett's name pays tribute to civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, Max's name includes a nod to artist, athlete and advocate Paul Robeson.
Nine hours after closing the April issue of Ebony -- with Whitney Houston's unexpected death prompting her to rip apart the magazine and, with the Ebony staff, accomplish in 12 days what normally takes two months -- Barnett strokes Max's hair as he lays his head in her lap inside their three-story apartment in an industrial section of the West Loop.
"What does Mommy always say you are?" she asks him, starting a ritual she has had with him since he was born. "Nice. Smart. Strong."
He looks at her, repeating softly, "I'm a nice boy. I'm a smart boy. I can't remember the last one ... Strong? I'm a strong boy."
Barnett, who is separated from husband Jeffrey Brown, a sales and marketing professional, hugs Max and watches as he strolls out the door with his au pair, who will take him to a Spanish immersion program at the Intercultural Montessori Language School in the West Loop.
Barnett admits that her busy schedule means she hasn't seen her son a single night that week but says "I don't torture myself with guilt about that."