Heirs to 

emerge 

 

Savoy v. Clarity 
By E. Kate Novack  

For Clarence Thomas, Emerge pulled no punches.

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In 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 expert marketer."

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 miniseries:

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 with Savoy."

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 market.

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 $3 billion.

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 says.

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."

Pause.

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.