Executive turmoil at Essence, Ebony magazines prompts changes and investigations

Essence, a magazine geared to women, was hit by an anonymous essay reportedly penned by former and current employees that alleged a toxic work environment and recently named an interim CEO.

SHARE Executive turmoil at Essence, Ebony magazines prompts changes and investigations
Ebony late last week forced out CEO Willard Jackson following an initial inquiry into some of his financial transactions.

Ebony late last week forced out CEO Willard Jackson following an initial inquiry into some of his financial transactions.

Sun-Times file

NEW YORK — Two storied magazines that focus on news and culture in the Black community, Essence and Ebony, are in the midst of turmoil at their top levels.

Ebony late last week forced out CEO Willard Jackson following an initial inquiry into some of his financial transactions. The general interest magazine, which focuses on news and culture about African American life, celebrates its 75th anniversary later this year.

Essence, a magazine geared to women, was hit by an anonymous essay reportedly penned by former and current employees that alleged a toxic work environment and recently named an interim CEO.

Jackson is a partner in the CVG Group, which purchased Ebony in 2016. The board of directors is looking for an interim CEO and operating committee to replace him.

Jacob Walthour Jr., chairman of Ebony’s board of directors, said Monday the board became aware of financial transactions that did not go through the proper approval process, including some where it wasn’t clear whether the magazine or Jackson was the beneficiary.

The lack of transparency was unacceptable and prompted the investigation, which is continuing, he said.

Without giving specifics, Walthour said the board was also concerned about some of the entities that Jackson was dealing with. He cited the “class, integrity and honor” with which company founder John H. Johnson operated with.

“It’s our view that we prevented significant damage from being done to the brand,” he said.

There was no immediate response to an attempt to reach Jackson through CVG Group.

The essay, “The Truth About Essence,” was published on Medium on June 28 under the byline “Black Female Anonymous.” The essay alleged pay inequity, sexual harassment and corporate bullying and intimidation on the part of management at Essence, where Naomi Campbell just graced the cover of its 50th anniversary issue.

“The company’s longstanding pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business,” said the essay, which was accompanied by a petition seeking a management change.

It is the latest example of journalists of color, in the week of George Floyd’s death and nationwide demonstrations, speaking up about alleged mistreatment and inequities in the industry as well as their news organizations.

Essence management called the letter “heartbreaking” in an initial response. The magazine, run by Essence Communications, called the anonymous letter “an unfounded attempt to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character.”

Last week, however, Essence announced the appointment of Caroline Wanga, a former Target executive hired in June, to step in as interim CEO. The owner of the magazine, Richlieu Dennis, was a focus of many of the complaints in the anonymous letter.

Essence also said it would hire outside investigators to interview employees and determine the truth about the accusations.

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