On Saturday, in the midst of promoting his latest magazine cover for Ebony, Chance the Rapper gave a shout out to the creative team behind his spread. “Just wanna make sure I thank the old editorial staff at Ebony magazine that made my cover story happen,” he wrote on Twitter. “Let’s work on some other stuff soon.” The tweet, while on the surface supportive, nodded to quite a bit of unrest at a publication that celebrates African American culture. In addition to reportedly firing a third of its editorial staff and being signed to William Morris Entertainment, the 72-year-old magazine recently became the focus of the social hashtag #EbonyOwes.
On April 24, The Establishment published a story titled, “Why Isn’t ‘Ebony’ Paying Its Black Writers?” In short, the piece asserts that “close to a dozen” writers alleged that Ebony had not paid them for “work dating back as far as 2013.” The article goes further, grouping Ebony amongst a category of publications into which it lumps Teen Vogue. The writer feels both seem to “prey on younger creatives, and especially creatives of color,” by paying low fees and at times not paying at all. Since the story went live, others have come forward on social media.
In December 2016, Ebony published a special commemorative issue featuring Barack Obama. That 83-page glossy featured exclusive photographs, archival Ebony articles and, according to a press release issued by the company itself, “hard-hitting analyses from leading African American writers.” New York Times best-selling author Baratunde Thurston, who wrote a story for that issue, as well as Adrienne Gibbs, who was the managing editor brought on to pull the issue together, both say they have not yet been paid.
Other freelancers who've worked on the monthly periodical as well as commemorative issues like Michelle Obama's have also chimed in, stating that they haven’t been paid either. If true, it would stand in direct violation of the contracts that Ebony made them sign — this extends to people working in video editing, marketing and even a former creative director for the iconic book. Gibbs even claims that after writing the cover story on Chance, the magazine hasn't responded to her emails, though that invoice is not due to be paid out until 45 days after publication.
To be clear, the idea that this is inherently a race problem, a case of Ebony not paying their black writers because they are black as opposed to not paying writers because they think they can get away with it, is a murky one. Late payment and being lowballed on rates is an industry-wide phenom, regardless of color. Because rates are rarely discussed publicly — which itself is a part of a nationwide problem with salary transparency employers can insidiously pay different amounts to different people simply because of ignorance. Essentially, writers are paid whatever they can manage to negotiate. Some writers couldn’t fathom being paid $500 for a piece. Others couldn’t fathom being paid $50. The truth is people get paid both, sometimes for similar work.
As rate negotiations happen privately with few industry standards available for reference, people of all races are routinely asked to contribute work for little to nothing. For people of color the problem is often exacerbated by having less visibility into what their white counterparts are making.
To level this playing field some have started sites like WhoPaysWriters.com or have committed to having open and honest conversations about payment publicly. Finding these conversations or starting them with peers is a freelancer’s best opportunity to bring some context to their own work. But late payment, too, is an industry wide problem and a lot more straightforward.
On May 15 in the city of New York, the “Freelance Isn’t Free” Act went into effect. In this bit of local legislation, companies are to pay out all invoices within 30 days of receiving unless otherwise stated in their contract. While Ebony freelancers do not fall under New York state's jurisdiction, Ebony’s obligations are subject to Chicago law and also expressly state a 45 day payout window.
Possibly most disconcerting thing of all - outside of actively recruiting writers from the community they claim to support and then refusing to pay them - has been the manner in which Ebony has carelessly handled these freelancers. Early tweets that were a part of the #EbonyOwes thread are no longer a part of the hashtag. Some allege this is because the publication reported them as spam to have them removed. What’s more, in a now deleted tweet, the magazine allegedly told a user: “Yeah well, your little Twitter rant isn’t going to change the way the media business is run. Yall acting like its 100s of people. Its 10.” This is not how media works and it is certainly more than 10 people.
It is important to note here that some in the #EbonyOwes hashtag have been conflating the issue. Any story in the Chance the Rapper edition, or the issue before it, or invoices for online work done in the past month are not due to be paid out yet. Those all would fall within the 45 day payment window the publication is allowed by law. As it stands, those complaining about those particular payments are in the minority.
The Root has totalled Ebony’s debts to freelancers at over $15,000. To be frank: a business that racks up that much in debt to contractors, developing deceptive and evasive policies like continually sending “in progress,” requesting documents that were already obtained and just ignoring emails, in order to not pay is not a business. It’s a scam. To do so on the backs of the very community you purport to support, to whom you are an icon and staple, is morally reprehensible. And yet, here we are.
Maybe Ebony is out of touch with the times - a time wherein tweets get turned into movies, a time in which hashtags can force the removal of top dollar ad campaigns. Maybe they forgot the power of words; how they can inspire others to action, advertisers to pull dollars and sponsors to drop out of activations. Maybe they are confused.
This is to disavow them of that confusion.
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