To those Ebony subscribers waiting for their March issue to arrive — it’s not coming.
That’s because Chicago-based Johnson Publishing created a combined March-April issue while it worked to renegotiate higher rates from advertisers.
Subscribers did not receive notice and no adjustments will be made to their rates, according to Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers, who said the combined issue is being printed for distribution in the next two weeks.
“A double issue counts as two issues,” Rogers said.
Ebony, a monthly lifestyle magazine targeting African-Americans, regularly produces a December-January issue. Folding March into April, however, was a first under Rogers, who said it was driven by an ongoing initiative to boost the magazine’s ad rates for 2015.
“We had not completed our negotiations with our clients, and so we felt that rather than accepting lower rates, we felt that it was prudent to move forward with a double issue,” Rogers said.
Rogers said that all of Ebony’s advertisers are on board with the higher rates and production on the May issue is underway. But the sudden decision to combine the March and April issues comes during a tumultuous time for the magazine, which lost its editor last month and saw its ad revenue decline sharply in 2014.
“It’s not a good sign. It’s not a sign of strength,” said John Harrington, a magazine industry analyst. “But it’s not an unusual strategy.”
Consumer magazine industry revenues in North America have been flat at about $25 billion since 2009, according to research firm Statista. Digital growth has kept pace with print revenue declines, but “tremendous pressure and competition” to adapt to the new media landscape has led a number of magazine publishers to reduce frequency to save printing and distribution costs, Harrington said.
Johnson Publishing’s own Jet magazine reduced print frequency from weekly to about every three weeks before transitioning to an all-digital format in June 2014. Jet had a circulation of 720,000 and an annual subscription rate of $19.99 when it published its final print edition. A Jet digital app rolled out in July and was shelved three months later amid billing issues.
Ebony has a total average monthly circulation of 1.26 million through December, a 1.2 percent year-over-year decline, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Newsstand sales dropped 35 percent during the period.
Advertising revenue at Ebony was down 24 percent last year, according to Standard Media Index. Standard Media Index monitors ad spending through data obtained from five of the six largest advertising holding companies, as well as leading independent agencies.
Rogers said the ad revenue decline at Ebony was 8 percent last year, but has made a priority of increasing advertising rates this year to reverse the downward trend.
The former social secretary under President Barack Obama, Rogers has been leading Johnson Publishing since 2010. In January, she said the company was looking to sell its historic photo archives, valued at $40 million, in an effort to raise much-needed capital. Rogers said last week it will be a “lengthy process.”
Also on Rogers’ plate is finding a replacement for Ebony editor Mitzi Miller, who stepped down last month to pursue television and film projects. The March-April issue was put together by the “bench team,” Rogers said, which is working together on the upcoming May issue as well.
Hiring a new editor will take up to 60 days, with in-house candidates getting the first look, Rogers said. The new editor will have to focus on fully integrating the digital and print sides of the business.
Rogers said the decision to skip the March issue had nothing to do with an editorial staff in transition and everything to do with raising what she called Ebony’s below-market advertising rates. While Rogers acknowledged some subscribers have called to complain about the missing issue, she said the nearly 70-year-old magazine is ready to move forward.
“I think it was a good business decision,” Rogers said.