Ebony magazine's digital staff abruptly laid off without pay as asset auction looms

Members of Ebony magazine's digital team said this week they've been fired and haven’t received their final paychecks in the latest controversy to hit the struggling publication that has chronicled black life in America for decades.          

» RELATED: George Lucas and his wife want to control Ebony archives 

In an email sent to staff on May 30 provided to USA TODAY, the magazine’s human resources department announced that due to a “delay in receiving expected capital” paychecks from that period would not be sent out. The team decided to stop working until they were paid, and on June 7 the seven members of Ebony’s digital staff were fired, said Joshua David, the magazine’s former social media director.          

“It’s sad and it’s frustrating and it’s really disheartening to be at a company for almost two years and be treated like this, especially a black company,” David said.          

David, who said he was last paid more than a month ago, estimated he is owed $8,000 in back pay and expenses, but says he has had difficulty getting in touch with company leadership since he was fired. He said he has filed wage claims in Houston and Los Angeles, where he is based.          

Two days before the employees were terminated, former Ebony writer Jasmine Washington said she received an email notifying employees that Ebony would be vacating its New York office and instructing employees to remove their personal items.          

"As you all know, we reduced the Chicago office and went with the footprint of working remotely. We will be taking the same strategy with the New York office," the email read. "In the interim we will be looking for another location."          

When Washington arrived to collect her belongings, she was fired. Washington said the experience has been particularly disheartening because Ebony has been so important to her family.          

 "I’ve seen it at my grandma’s house, my mom has read it, I’ve read it. So it’s like a generational thing," Washington said. "To be able to work at such a prestigious place you would think that you would have a really good experience but it hasn’t been that."          

Michael Gibson, co-chairman and founder of Austin, Texas-based Clear View Group, which owns Ebony, declined to comment to USA TODAY on the digital's team's dismissal, citing a "policy of not commenting on any employment practices or issues."          

This is not the first time Ebony has been accused of failing to pay its writers. In April 2017, almost a year after Ebony and its sister publication Jet were bought by CVG, the hashtag #EbonyOwes began trending on Twitter when writer Jagger Blaec publish an article titled “Why isn’t ‘Ebony’ Paying Its Black Writers” in the Establishment.          

The publication, alongside Fox News, later received Thumbs Down Award from the National Association of Black Journalists for “several alarming missteps” including cutting its staff, relocation from its historic building in Chicago to Los Angeles, and how it handled the dispute with freelancers.          

"Many of the decisions being made by Ebony's new owners seem counter to the vision of founder John H. Johnson," said NABJ vice president of print Marlon A. Walker. "Ebony and its sister publication Jet are near and dear to us. To hear writers whose words bring us much joy aren't being paid for those words is sad, unconscionable, unacceptable.  

"Johnson is probably rolling over in his grave."

In September 2017, the National Writers Union filed a case in Illinois' Cook County Court against Ebony Media Group and CVG, who eventually agreed to pay 44 freelancers who weren't paid for their published work about $80,000. The union previously estimated that there may be as many as 50 freelancers owed upwards of $200,000.          

This was considered a big win for the union, but the following year Ebony failed to make one of the agreed upon payments. By October 2018, about one-third of the writers had been paid just over 35% of the total owed.          

The magazine’s previous owner, Johnson Publishing Co., filed for bankruptcy liquidation in April, which Ebony said would not affect its operations.          

Johnson Publishing had retained control of assets including its historic photo archives, which are to be sold the week of July 15 at a live auction likely to be held in Chicago. The collection, once valued at more than $46 million, features more than 4 million photographs chronicling decades of African American life and culture, including shots of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Nat “King” Cole, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Prince and Stevie Wonder, according to Hilco Streambank, the firm running the auction.          

For now, the former digital team members said they are looking for jobs and trying to determine their next steps.

"The idea of filing a lawsuit has come up but we haven’t started planning it yet," Washington said.

» RELATED: Johnson, former Ebony and Jet publisher, files for bankruptcy

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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