What's Not on My Coffee Table

By Amy Alexander
The Washington Post

Following the death earlier this month of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, his publications emerged as central symbols of African American life. "By the early1970s," wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Sheehan, "it was common in thousands of African American homes . . . to have two choices of reading material on coffee tables: the Bible and Ebony magazine."

Johnson's death got me thinking about the void that exists in the world of black-oriented publishing these days. There's the feel-good, middle-class black mirror most vividly embodied by Ebony and Jet, and the post-modern, hyper-acquisitive "bling" aesthetic found in hip-hop magazines such as Vibe and XXL. But there's no idea-driven publication aimed at black Americans -- at least none that has achieved equivalent success. Why? An honest assessment should probably begin at home: Here's what you'd have found on my coffee table, should you have stopped by in mid-August:

Three board books by the children's author Sandra Boynton.
A Land's End clothing catalogue.
The Aug. 22 New Yorker.
The August Harper's.

No Ebony or Jet on the table, or anywhere else in my house. No copies of Vibe, the Source, Black Enterprise or Essence, either. No, with our time for reading so limited by life's exigencies -- also known as two children under6 -- our intake has been pared down in recent years to publications that meet a simple criterion: What do we need to know? I'm looking for that sort of general-interest magazine for the black reader and I'm not finding it.

While it is true that white American readers, especially parents, likely go through a similarly ruthless selection process, for black Americans that process is accompanied by a raft of cultural and historic factors, including a strong degree of pressure to remain loyal to "black brands." Moreover, the question of black Americans' identity -- most often framed in terms of whether one is "black enough" -- tosses an especially incendiary element into the mix.

Could it be that as blacks of my generation have moved up the economic ladder, we have created a class of intellectual orphans? Is it a healthy sign of integration for us to turn to traditional -- or "white" -- publications such as Harper's for broad coverage of subjects that matter to us? Or should we worry that integration, particularly of American newsrooms beginning in the 1960s, has created a brain drain of black journalists from black-oriented publications that is only now having a negative impact?

So it was that after reading the many tributes to Johnson, I felt, at least fleetingly, a modicum of guilt for having abandoned Ebony, the magazine that had been a comforting if sporadic presence in my family's home since childhood. At the same time, in purely pragmatic terms, the 42-year-old me has little use for feature stories about celebrities (black or otherwise), or service stories instructing me on a range of lifestyle subjects (two staples of Ebony and its younger, more woman-focused counterpart, Essence).

Meanwhile, the Harper's on my coffee table has an eye-opening story by Mark Crispin Miller about the fishy problems at Ohio polling places during the last presidential election. Many of the precincts where suspicious activity occurred served primarily black voters. And I'm left wondering whether a black-oriented magazine with top-notch investigative reporters might have approached the story differently, with a stronger emphasis on the troubled history of American blacks and voting rights. Which leads me to wonder why black-oriented magazines are not filling in the gap.

In purely economic terms, publishers have clearly recognized black consumers as a viable market since the days when Johnson first got Ebony off the ground in 1945. Yet, with the exception of the publishers of the late, lamented Emerge (which lasted about a decade ending in 2000) and the recently resurrected Savoy, no one to date has seen fit to provide a black-themed publication for college-educated, post-civil rights era, pre-hip-hop nation, middle-class blacks. That is, admittedly, a modest niche, but niche-marketing has become the order of the day in the magazine world, with publications for all manner of obscure reader fancies, including black hair care.

From my informal review of newsstand titles, pickings for readers like me are slim. Vibe, the wildly successful monthly, is expert at depicting the New Jack Swing sensibilityof urban life. Yet the lack of self-awareness is jarring: I am not a prude when it comes to hip-hop, but increasingly I want to know more about the possible long-term effect of all that bling on young black Americans, and I'm not finding it in Vibe or the Source.

Of course, a stalwart like the Crisis, published by the NAACP and once famously edited by W.E.B. DuBois, does offer sober examinations of some of the subjects that interest me, including a recent issue devoted to the looming expiration of parts of the Voting Rights Act. Yet the Crisis, as Emerge did, suffers from spotty resources that limit its ability to offer consistently smart, in-depth coverage of politics, education and culture.

Having made my living for 20 years as a journalist -- first at newspapers and more recently as a columnist for Africana.com, which was founded in the late '90s by Harvard black studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- I have a professional as well as personal interest in black publications. For its five-year run, Africana.com was a kind of Slate or Salon for and about blacks. It was bought by Time Warner in 2000, merged with a black-oriented site at America Online earlier this year, and several months ago, shuttered. I am hardly alone in lamenting its passing. As one reader wrote after the site went down, "What I liked about Africana.com was all the information I was able to gather about black-related news, lifestyle, etc. . . . It helped me out a lot as a first time mother, especially on issues involving how to prepare your children for a society that really doesn't hold our African-American children to a high standard."

Kim Pearson, an associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey and proprietor of the blog Professor Kim's News Notes, explained to me that the issue underlying the gap I perceive is the collapse of an entire belief system. "Not only has the media environment changed, but the core beliefs through which we filter media messages have changed," said Pearson, who also teaches a course in race and journalism. Ebony publisher Johnson certainly benefited from timing, she told me, and "from the work done by DuBois and others to create a meta-narrative about black identity and progress that was widely shared."

Now, however, consumers and readers are going in many different directions. "The post-civil rights era and the double-edged sword of integration have led to the fragmenting of that shared belief system, and the fragmenting of markets and audiences besides," Pearson said. Sixty years ago, when Johnson succeeded in creating a mass-market publication for black Americans, the overall social, economic and political culture of the United States excluded blacks. With millions of black Americans boasting middle-class incomes and important jobs, however, the aspirational model presented by Ebony seems quaint, at best.

For many of us, Ebony today is like the reliable old auntie in our extended family: treasured, yet not likely to be the individual we go to first to help us sort through the roiling complexities of our 21st-century lives. I take comfort in the magazine's relative fiscal health: It still sells 1.5 million copies per month, according to Crain's Chicago Business. Moreover, Vibe sails along on ad revenue increases that most other magazines only dream of -- 14 percent so far this year, according to the Aug. 17 issue of Target Market News. Perhaps Vibe, the club-hopping nephew you love but worry over, should devote some of its full coffers to a more serious kind of journalism, just as Rolling Stone did toward the end of its first decade of publication.

"Vibe and the others are very important in terms of following the hip-hop nation," said Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. "But it's one thing to say, 'We don't care what white people think,' which is what Vibe and these other hip-hop magazines do, and quite another to not be at all self-critical." As Neal sees it, a well-funded, middle-brow, black-oriented publication is needed now more than ever precisely because of the increasingly complicated experiences of black Americans today.

"Can you imagine what the conversation about Bill Cosby might have been like if, say, the Crisis carried the same kind of weight today that it did in the 1920s?" Neal asked during our phone interview, referring to the ongoing debate stirred by the comedian last year when he criticized some black Americans for not following through on the goals of the civil rights movement. "We might have seen a range of commentary on the subject, instead of the same group of black public intellectuals who always seem to turn up in the [mainstream] press."

Neal, a former contributor to Africana.com, notes that the Web does provide alternatives to the traditional press. He recently put up his own blog, NewBlackMan, and says he's finding writing on it an exciting -- if as yet income-free -- endeavor. Yet, as we experienced with the death of Africana.com, not even in the comparatively wide-open, low-overhead realm of the Internet has a serious black-oriented publication managed to find broad commercial success.

So I ponder the spot once occupied by Ebony on the coffee table and realize it speaks volumes about me, about black Americans and about Americans in general.