The New York Review of Magazines

Back From the Dead

By Marvin Anderson

After Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, people around the world paid homage. He was a black icon who sprouted out of rubble and crossed racial boundaries in ways unlike any of his musical predecessors — a feat that was, in its own way, duplicated by Vibe magazine. In the infancy of their careers, both struggled to grow in a demanding marketplace. Both redefined their images to reach a diverse group of fans.

And both died in the same week.

On June 30, 2009, Vibe’s staff learned that the magazine it had lovingly nurtured was folding after 16 years. It had climbed to a high position in the crowded music magazine industry, elbowing competitors out of the way as its circulation rose to more than 800,000 by the end of 2008. But as the recession increased in severity, Vibe was hit hard. Circulation and ad sales dwindled. Staff reductions and other budget-cutting tactics by the owners, Vibe Media Group, were not enough to keep the magazine alive. When its closing was announced a year ago, circulation numbers had shrunk to little more than 600,000, The New York Times reported.

Danyel Smith, who was Vibe’s editor when the end came, e-mailed a letter to various media outlets: “On behalf of the Vibe content staff it is with great sadness, and with heads held high, that we leave the building today. We were assigning and editing a Michael Jackson tribute issue when we got the news. It’s a tragic week in overall, but as the doors of Vibe Media Group close, on the eve of the magazine’s sixteenth anniversary, it’s a sad day for music, for hip hop in particular, and for the millions of readers and users who have loved and who continue to love the Vibe brand. We thank you, we have served you with joy, pride and excellence, and we will miss you.”

Vibe was just one of 428 magazines that closed in 2009 (according to, but for a generation of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and neo-soul music lovers, it was a shocking loss. Vibe had been a platform dedicated to their lifestyle, a voice for a previously overlooked segment of magazine readership.

It began in 1993, when Quincy Jones joined with Time Inc. to create the publication. “You had a lot of thriving black culture,” said Emil Wilbekin, one of the founding editors. “There wasn’t anything to really cover that world. You had bits and pieces dedicated to this, but you never had a magazine dedicated to this. We were creating something that was culturally moving the needle.”

What started as a small venture turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with not only a thriving magazine, but award shows and multimedia components as well. The publication launched in the midst of hip-hop’s rise and it chronicled its evolution — and its assimilation into the pop-cultural mainstream.

Vibe helped to legitimize the culture,” said Erik Parker, former music editor at Vibe. “The music was legitimized by the record sales, but Vibe did a good job of putting this on the map.”

As Vibe grew and hip-hop was recognized as a genre, not just a phase, competing publications appeared, but Vibe was always a step ahead with its professional page design, crisp photos and exclusive access to artists. By the time the millennium arrived, Vibe had grown into something that was more than a magazine. It had become a quintessential part of the culture it covered and a recognizable brand.

Vibe to the hip-hop community is like Meet the Press for a place of political discourse,” said Parker. “It’s a measuring stick for culture.”

The news of its demise caused a stir in the power center of  the music community, where some of its greatest fans — writers, publishers and media moguls — work. They refused to let it stay in the grave.

Rumors of a relaunch started almost as soon as the death notice had been posted, beginning with Quincy Jones, who talked about repurchasing the magazine. Ultimately, however, it was a private equity fund, Intermedia (which also owns Soul Train, and Latino and gospel music channels) that bought Vibe and all its assets in August 2009 and immediately relaunched it – online. Then, on Dec. 8, the magazine reappeared in print, as a quarterly.

The 120-page relaunch issue had singer Chris Brown on the cover 10 months after a physical brawl with his former girlfriend Rihanna, an R&B and pop singer, led to his arrest and, eventually, a plea-bargain sentence of community service and probation. Some readers and journalists thought it was risky for Vibe to return to the magazine racks with a cover subject who was tainted with reports of abusing his ex-girlfriend, but Vibe’s new editor, Jermaine Hall, saw the Brown cover as the perfect setup for success: something dramatic, informative, with a sexy element. “I wanted to give the guy a chance to apologize and give him a chance to tell his side of the story in a place he feels comfortable,” he said. Although he declined to release specific sales figures, Hall said, “The numbers look good.”

He also said the magazine is performing well online, at, with help from social media like Facebook and Twitter. Again, however, he would not reveal specific numbers. Before Vibe relaunched, said Hall, “The magazine was the focus and the website was secondary.” Then, just one person was dedicated to the website, but now, Hall said, he has a team of five people working on the site and related social media.

As for the print magazine, the new owners are planning to increase the frequency to six issues for 2011, but not beyond that. “That’s where we need to be for now,” Hall said, as he rubbed his brow. His eyes were slightly red and fatigue was written on his face. Bringing an iconic magazine back from the dead is hard work.

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