#EbonySTILLOwes

Jay Scott Smith
Jul 9, 2019 · 11 min read

In an exclusive, Former Ebony Magazine staffers Josh David and Jasmine Washington speak out on their firing, not being paid, and being kept in the dark about the infamous #EbonyOwes.

Joshua David hadn’t seen a paycheck in nearly two months and had gotten nearly the same amount of answers from the brass at the venerable Ebony Magazine.

David, who had been the magazine’s Los Angeles-based social media director and had started as a volunteer with the magazine two years ago, had received an e-mail on May 31 from the magazine’s human resources department that led him and others on their staff to their limits.

“This current situation is devastating because any hope we had of the new leadership maintaining the magazine’s legacy has gone away.”

“As a result of a delay in receiving expected capital this week, in payroll this pay period,” the e-mail said. At that moment, the staff — which had also been working often for no pay or late pay for months — had finally had enough.

“A company told us ‘we don’t know when you’re going to get paid,’” David said in an exclusive interview. “Not even that they wouldn’t be paying us. We never got a date.

“There was no confirmed date [of when to expect payment],” he added. “So we had no choice but to do a work stoppage.”

Jasmine Washington, who had just started writing for Ebony in March after previous stints with Juicy Magazine and BET, had also not been paid for nearly a month. She along with other reporters and the social media crew, went on the work stoppage.

“We issued a work stoppage on May 31,” Washington said. “We were supposed to be paid on the 31st and they e-mailed us on the 30th saying that we wouldn’t be paid of a delay. When we found out that they wouldn’t be paying us, we said we will not work until you pay us.”

The staff heard nothing from the company regarding pay for nearly two weeks and would only hear from HR on June 5 when the staff received another e-mail stating that the company would be shutting down its office in New York City that week. The e-mail says that they wanted staff to begin working remotely.

A few weeks earlier, the print staff in the magazine’s home base in Chicago was let go. On June 7, the ax fell on Josh in L.A.

“So multiple days go by and it’s silent,” David says. “The only people in communication are the digital staff. I go to tell my entire team that [Ebony] suddenly changed all the passwords.

“I can’t go to Navient or another student loan provider and say ‘Hey. I have an IOU from Ebony Magazine.’ That’s not gonna work.”

“I got an alert on Thursday that all of our passwords were changed,” he adds. “By Friday morning, we’re locked out of our e-mail accounts and each of us get a phone call from HR — one after the other.”

David received a phone call from Elizabeth Burnett, Ebony’s HR director, quickly telling him “your position is being eliminated today.” It was a call that the other seven members of his staff, along with Washington and others received.

Burnett told David that they would be sending an e-mail listing off all of the expenses as well as pay that he was owed, and he would be told when to expect it. In total, between back pay and expenses, David is owed close to $10,000.

As of now, he has not received a penny. Washington, who said that she was owed significantly less, also has not been paid.

“The Ebony Magazine we grew up with is dead.”

Washington and David are far from the first to experience this type of treatment from the legendary Black lifestyle magazine that was founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago on Nov. 1, 1945.

Ebony’s stretch of financial issues — as well as stiffing the writers and staff — is a touchy subject in Black media circles. The Black Press has long been underrepresented and often, rightfully, complains of not being treated with the same respect as most mainstream press.

It was recently announced that the legendary Chicago Defender would stop issuing a print edition after 114 years. The move was made to cut costs without shutting down the iconic black paper.

Ebony and Jet are as close to mainstream as black print media could be, particularly in its heyday between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. The magazines have often been a fixture in Black and Brown homes across the country.

You often couldn’t go more than 5 feet in a black barber shop, beauty salon, dentist office, or business without seeing a copy of Ebony or Jet.

Ebony and Jet were purchased from the Johnson Publishing Co. in 2016 by the Houston-based Clear View Group — the magazine operates under the name Ebony Media Operations, LLC. Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy liquidation in April.

It had initially retained control of assets including its legendary collection of photos. The collection, which includes iconic pictures of Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama, and the unforgettable 1955 photo of Emmett Till, are to be sold at auction this month.

The full-time staff had been stripped of all of its benefits, including health insurance, on Nov. 14, 2018. According to an internal e-mail provided by David, the staff was notified in January that their HSA plans were also cancelled.

“Do you understand how weird it was to be working at Ebony when they owed these people money? It’s the most stressful thing because how are you talking about Black social injustice, while there is injustice happening right in your home.”

The staff’s 401(k) payments, which were still being deducted from their non-existent checks, had not been matched since late last year. David said that he was told by CVG head Michael Gibson that there was a “glitch” in the system. But when he contacted TransAmerica, the brokerage firm that processes payments, they said that Ebony was handling the 401(k) money directly.

He later came to find out from another former staffer who has been investigating the matter that it appears that since at least February 2019, there was no money being deposited into their 401(k) accounts, despite it continually being deducted. The money that had been coming out is unaccounted for.

“We have no idea,” Josh said. “This is why we have a lawyer because this is deeper than any of us thought.”

The duo, along with other fired staff have attorneys but have not set forth formally with a lawsuit. They have focused as much on paying their bills after they had suing the magazine.

“I can’t go to Navient or another student loan provider and say ‘Hey. I have an IOU from Ebony Magazine.’ That’s not gonna work,” Washington said. “That’s my biggest gripe. It’s a lack of concern for our well-being. What are we supposed to do? We worked hard for all of this.”

The pain that David, Washington, and others are experiencing now matches what numerous freelance writers experienced in recent years from the magazine. In April 2017, writer Jagger Blaec wrote a story entitled “Why isn’t ‘Ebony’ Paying Its Black Writers”.

In September 2017, the National Writers Union filed a case in Cook County, Ill. against Ebony Media Group and CVG. The union estimated that there may be as many as 50 freelancers owed upwards of $200,000.

“So the pattern is that it happened to freelancers first, and now you’re doing it to your salaried employees two years later,” David said. “You’re telling me, God forbid, a new batch of people get hired and it could happen again in 2021 and 2022? That’s a pattern.”

Ebony and Jet are as close to mainstream as black print media could be, particularly in its heyday between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. The magazines have often been a fixture in Black and Brown homes across the country.

The two sides eventually agreed to pay 44 unpaid freelancers about $80,000. As of October 2018, however, about one-third of the writers had been paid just over $28,000 total. The National Association of Black Journalists gave Ebony a “Thumbs Down” for its treatment of freelancers in 2017.

Putting that in perspective, the only other company to get a “Thumbs Down” was Fox News.

“The Ebony Magazine we grew up with is dead,” Marlon Walker, NABJ’s Vice President of Print, said. “This current situation is devastating because any hope we had of the new leadership maintaining the magazine’s legacy has gone away. I’m almost glad John H. Johnson isn’t here to see this, what he built being torn down so effortlessly.”

Walker said that he has received outreach from two Ebony employees, and that NABJ’s leadership is seeing what they can do to help.

“What am I supposed to say?”

Shortly after the original piece was published, the now-infamous hashtag #EbonyOwes began to trend worldwide on social media.

For Josh, who joined the staff right around this time, he took over the company’s social media handles and had to deal with a deluge of shade and scorn in Ebony’s mentions.

“I ran the social media for nearly a year and a half, and my first couple of months I’m like ‘What’s #EbonyOwes?’ and I’m being told ‘don’t worry about it,’” he said. “I’m on social media every day for you guys and you don’t want to tell me what’s going on? That’s disturbing.

“I’m speaking on behalf of the company on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram every day for you.” He added. Along with running social media, he would often serve as the magazine’s red-carpet correspondent and host for major celebrity events like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys.

Some black websites and media have caught the ire of the community for touching on this subject, despite the fact that the writers the magazine has often avoided paying are Black. The magazine itself has been accused of attempting to intimidate others into keeping quiet.

At the height of #EbonyOwes, he also had a number of uncomfortable moments with celebrities when he would simply ask them for interview or negotiating partnerships.

“I put my name out there on behalf of this company for so many partnerships,” he said. “But when you’re talking to celebrities and they bring up the [#EbonyOwes] conversation and they say ‘Josh, I’d love to work with you, but have you paid the freelance writers?’ What am I supposed to say?”

He continues, getting more emotional by the moment: “Do you understand how weird it was to be working at Ebony when they owed these people money? It’s the most stressful thing because how are you talking about Black social injustice, while there is injustice happening right in your home; right where you work and not talk about it. It’s this weird skeleton in the closet that we just constantly try to not talk about.

“Listen, I know I gotta make a check, but there was a certain point where everything I tweeted, people were like ‘That’s not a real person. Ebony owes us money.’ There were people that were angry and rightfully so! How dare Ebony continue working when you haven’t paid these people.”

For Washington, she was given the similar impression by Ebony brass that everything was handled financially and that things were good. But even as she took the job, she had a sinking suspicion something wasn’t right.

“It was huge red flag for me. I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “You see these kinds of things and I feel like we all wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt that they would get it together. Despite all the craziness, you’re thinking maybe they’re on the right path now.

“Who wouldn’t want, as a black woman, a kind of place to tell our stories than a place like Ebony Magazine,” she continued. “But in the back of my mind, I didn’t feel good. I guess that’s my fault for going into a situation where from the beginning and I didn’t feel right about. This is why I have to trust my instincts.”

The full-time staff had been stripped of all of its benefits, including health insurance, on Nov. 14, 2018. According to an internal e-mail provided by David, the staff was notified in January that their HSA plans were also cancelled.

Some black websites and media members have caught the ire of the community for touching on this subject, despite the fact that the writers the magazine has often avoided paying are Black. The common thread is that the community must remain loyal to the magazine, even as the magazine itself has not been loyal to its black writers.

People who speak out are accused of “bashing” a legendary black magazine and trying to “take Ebony down.” Even those who have been stiffed by the magazine have been conflicted over whether they should speak on it.

The one thing that both David and Washington insisted is that they are telling their story not to slander Ebony, but to simply force their hand. The magazine’s leadership has said that it will not comment on personnel matters.

They both understand and respect the legacy and history of the magazine, but they also want the company to do right by them and others.

“We had no other cards to play,” Josh said matter-of-factly. “We called them and they’re ignoring our phone calls. They’re ignoring e-mails.

“We sent letters to the P.O. Box and they’re not checking the P.O. Box,” he said. “The Houston Dept. of Labor can’t get in touch with them. What are we supposed to do?”

Jasmine adds: “A lot of people don’t understand. Nobody’s dragging anybody. We’re just telling the truth about what happened to us. I think that’s important because people in professional situations feel they can’t come forward because of backlash like that.

“The moment you tell the truth about what you’ve experienced, you get a target on your back,” she says. “Meanwhile, what are we supposed to do?”

For now, their focus is searching for work. David, a South Florida native who still lives in L.A., fears what will happen as the first of the month fast approaches. He has weighed moving back East just to find something.

“It hurts your heart because this one of the few [publications] that we have,” he said. “People have to understand that we have to speak against a company that I have worked for the last two years of my life and making incredible movement, in my opinion, on content for black people.

“This is what it looks like when heritage companies get bought and aren’t handled properly with business decisions.”

For Jasmine Washington, she is worried about how much this entire situation will damage her reputation. Prior to the firing, her work had garnered hundreds of thousands of impressions online in just the three months she was there.

I’ve been in this industry for seven years,” she says. “I’ve never been connected to any scandals. I don’t want this to be my legacy. I still have to look for jobs.

“So, when people Google my name, it’s not going to be my work that comes up,” she says, her voice full of frustration. “It’s going to be an article about not getting paid by [Ebony]. Who wants that to be their legacy?”

To hear this entire interview, plus a commentary on the state of the Black Press, check out Episode 98 of my Podcast, JSC Radio.

Jay Scott Smith

Written by

Award-Winning Broadcaster, Writer; Professor at Lincoln Univ. of PA • Host of JSCRadio • Seen/heard: NPR, MSNBC, ESPN • Detroit Made; Philly Living • ΦΒΣ

Jay Scott Smith

Written by

Award-Winning Broadcaster, Writer; Professor at Lincoln Univ. of PA • Host of JSCRadio • Seen/heard: NPR, MSNBC, ESPN • Detroit Made; Philly Living • ΦΒΣ

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store