his editor’s note in the June 2000 issue of Emerge magazine, the African-American
news and politics monthly, George Curry wrote, "Despite what some
people might say, there is a significant number of African Americans interested
in a publication of substance." Curry says he knew what was coming
when he wrote the letter. Emerge’s future had been tenuous since
Vanguarde Media acquired the magazine (along with BET Weekend and Heart
& Soul) six months earlier through a deal with BET. On May 31, shortly
after the June issue hit newsstands, Vanguarde’s Chairman and CEO
Keith Clinkscales placed Emerge on immediate publishing "hiatus."
Less than one year after announcing Emerge’s suspension, Clinkscales
has put out the first three issues of Savoy, a glossier, broader, more
lifestyle-oriented magazine, which has been called a black Vanity Fair.
Curry is raising money for a new magazine with the working name Clarity,
which he plans to launch by the end of the year and which he says will
be similar to Emerge — heavy on issues, light on fluff and entertainment,
a sort of news magazine-journal of opinion hybrid.
Much of the discussion surrounding Savoy and Emerge has focused on the
personality clashes between Clinkscales and Curry. On the one hand is
Clinkscales, 37, who launched Urban Profile, a bimonthly dedicated to
urban youth culture, edited Vibe, and helped develop Blaze, a hip-hop
title, before founding Vanguarde. He graduated from Harvard Business School
and speaks with a clipped accent. His bio touts his skill as "an
Then there is Curry, whose southern accent (he was born in Tuscaloosa,
Alabama) still comes through clearly. He was the quarterback and co-captain
of the football team at his alma mater, Knoxville College in Tennessee.
He’s a consummate newsman — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sports
Illustrated, the New York bureau chief and a Washington correspondent
at the Chicago Tribune. He was the first African-American president of
the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). But if he’s a journalistic
insider — one editor described him as "a good old boy"
— he’s militant in his politics.
The back and forth (based on separate interviews with the two men and
not an actual discussion between them) reads like something out of a television
Clinkscales: "It wasn’t a battle or a shutdown at all. It was
an editorial change."
Curry: "[Savoy] is not like a press changing its name. It is a different
group. I am insulted that people are trying to pass it off as Emerge."
Clinkscales: "I think all of [Emerge’s subscribers] will stick
Curry: "Emerge is the hardest audience to convert to Savoy. My crowd
is the roughest crowd because they’re a news crowd."
But such statements obscure an important question that the Savoy and Emerge
story raises: at a time when the availability of up-to-the -minute news
has challenged even blue-chip news weeklies, and some say mainstream media
are paying more attention to minority communities, what is the commercial
viability of an African-American politics and news monthly?
Both Savoy and Emerge draw upon their predecessors — African-American
titles like Essence, Ebony, Jet, Black Enterprise, and the NAACP’s
The Crisis — but take very different lessons from them. Clinkscales,
for example, credits Ebony for teaching him the power of the marketplace
and Black Enterprise for demonstrating the importance of attracting an
upscale, educated audience. Curry cites Encore American and Worldwide
News (known as Encore), an issue-oriented and politically-charged news
magazine published from 1972 to 1982, as the model for Emerge.
Both Clinkscales and the former Emerge team seem to agree on one thing
— that closing Emerge and launching Savoy was a business decision
in which the lifestyle and news feature model of magazine journalism won
out over the political commentary and hard news model. Clinkscales explains,
"What I was trying to do is make sure that we had the best opportunity
to reach the market. Politics and news is a tough territory. I watched
what happened with the news weeklies — they have all had difficulties
dealing with the Internet-CNN age we live in." Clarence Brown, the
former associate publisher of Emerge who is working with Curry on the
launch of Clarity, says Clinkscales’s choice "was basically
a business decision in terms of what kind of magazine you’re going
to do. I think it was the size of the potential audience for a news versus
a feature magazine."
With Savoy, Clinkscales says he is trying to preserve the news analysis
component and some of the provocative tone of Emerge but also wants to
incorporate lifestyle coverage, including entertainment and celebrities.
Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who
tracks magazines, says Clinkscales’s strategy makes sense from a
business perspective, noting that "news and magazines are becoming
sort of like an oxymoron because of the time factor." So far, articles
have included a mix of entertainment (a cover profile on ER star Eriq
La Salle), business (the downfall of DME Interactive Holdings CEO Darien
Dash, the first black Internet executive to head a public company), and
politics (the treatment of black voters in Florida), as well as pieces
that provide a critical look at the black community (the consequences
of black America’s "unwillingness" to own up to its homophobia).
Industry observers concur that news and politics aren’t easy when
it comes to attracting a broad audience and a solid base of advertisers.
Robert Cohen, a magazine industry consultant who is advising Savoy, says,
"The serious journals of opinion, news and commentary are having
a tough time — that’s not what people want." So far, though,
the main difference between Emerge’s and Savoy’s advertising
seems to be that Clinkscales’s magazine, unlike Curry’s, includes
ads for hair care products, makeup and record labels. Otherwise, the advertising-to-editorial
ratio (about one-to-three), dominant categories (financial services, automobiles,
liquor) and caliber of advertisers are similar.
Still, Husni is skeptical about the commercial viability of a news-focused
magazine like Emerge or Clarity because, he says, mainstream publications
have begun to devote more coverage to the African-American community as
the overall population has become more diverse. "Time and Newsweek
and the daily papers are covering these issues," he says.
Past issues of Emerge, however, don’t look quite like Time or Newsweek.
In November 1996, Curry ran a cover illustration of U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas as a lawn jockey. In April 1998, he portrayed
affirmative action foe Ward Connerly as a puppet (both of these covers
are touted on Curry’s Web site). A 1993 cover depicted Clarence Thomas
with an Aunt Jemima-like handkerchief on his head, a reference to "handkerchief
head," Malcolm X’s term for a black sellout. At the time, the
Chicago Sun-Times reported Curry saying, "There are a lot of blacks
who think that no matter how egregious the offense, blacks shouldn’t
criticize other blacks. That’s wrong. I say he deserves it. If I
had it to do over, I’d tie the knot tighter."
Today, Curry claims that the bold covers were partly an attempt to attract
attention to the magazine to compensate for a lack of promotional support
behind Emerge. But even if part publicity ploy, Curry’s covers reflect
his conviction that there is a need for a magazine in which African Americans
are free to criticize their own community, including their leaders. "Name
one publication that does it," he says. "It was the only African-American
news magazine out there." He adds, "If I have a reputation of
being credible, being right on the issues that are most important to African
Americans, I think I have a responsibility and I think I have more credence
than The Washington Post criticizing civil rights leaders. It’s awkward
for African Americans because most black leaders are so accustomed to
white leaders criticizing."
Newsday editor Les Payne, who was an Emerge contributor, says the magazine
was "vital" in taking on controversial issues and placing them
in an historical context in a way that other African-American titles didn’t
and still don’t. "It assumed in many cases that there was a
continuum to the black — for lack of a better term — movement
that some magazines would ignore," says Payne. "Essence did
a different thing, Ebony did a different thing." Payne says he would
have liked to hear Emerge’s voice on several recent stories affecting
the black community: reparations, racial profiling, Jesse Jackson.
As Curry and Brown raise funds for their new publication — they’re
aiming for $15 million, says Brown, adding that they’re "going
to start really bare bones" — they have an arsenal of statistics
to demonstrate the increasing economic power of African Americans. Earnings
for all black households in the U.S. increased eleven percent between
1998 and 1999, from $441 billion to $490 billion, compared to a nine percent
increase in earnings for white households during this same period, according
to Target Market News, a research firm that specializes in the African-American
Clearly this isn’t news to the business development departments at
large media companies. In June 2000, Time Inc. acquired a minority stake
in Essence Communications, the publisher of Essence magazine. In September
2000, Time Warner purchased Africana.com, the Internet portal co-founded
by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the Afro-American Studies department
at Harvard University. In November, Viacom purchased BET Holdings for
But industry consultant Cohen says he’s "very leery [of a magazine
like Clarity] mainly because the size of the market, although growing,
is small, and the cost of finding this market is high." And it’s
not a question of money; if the audience isn’t there, it doesn’t
make a difference if they start with $15 million or $50 million, Cohen
It remains to be seen whether Curry and his team will be able to attract
enough of an audience to make Clarity work. He and Brown say it’s
premature to discuss circulation goals, but Curry points out that Emerge’s
circulation (153,000 when the magazine closed) was greater than that of
issue-oriented publications like The New Republic and (the notably less
glossy) The Nation. They say the editorial content of their new magazine
will be similar to that of Emerge. In its ten-year life, Emerge won several
magazine awards, including Folio: magazine’s Award of Excellence
for News in 1999, six National Association of Black Journalists awards
and more than 30 Unity Awards.
What will be different, they say, is the marketing and promotion strategy.
The resources that were available to Emerge for marketing were about 25
percent of what was needed, according to Brown. Curry adds that Emerge
was promoted mostly through BET, whose "booty-shaking" audience,
he notes, was different from his magazine’s readership. "Obviously
we’re going to do marketing a lot differently," says Brown,
"in a way that we can grow the book and give it a good start —
unlike the old way, which was slow grow and no grow." Getting the
magazine on newsstands was also difficult. (Payne recalls traveling and
not being able to find the magazine — which included a cover story
he had written on Martin Luther King, Jr. — on the newsstand.)
Cohen, however, remains "guardedly pessimistic" about Clarity’s
prospects for increasing distribution to retail outlets and, ultimately,
for commercial success. But Curry remains faithful to the idea. Go to
www.georgecurry.com. Enter. Click on "life after emerge."
Screen fades to black with brown lettering: "You can kill a magazine."
Screen fades to white.
Enter purple-blue lettering: "But you can’t kill an idea…"
Now it’s up to Curry to bring his new magazine to life.