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Ebony Vows To Pay Freelancers After Social Media Backlash For Nonpayment

 Johnson Publishing Company's former headquarters at 820 S. Michigan
Johnson Publishing Company's former headquarters at 820 S. Michigan
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CHICAGO — Ebony, the legacy magazine by and for black people that built its brand in Chicago, is facing a barrage of complaints from its freelancers about delays in getting paid — or not getting paid at all.

A growing chorus of freelance writers has taken to Twitter in recent weeks to speak out against the glossy monthly magazine. Their message is the same: Ebony didn't pay for their work, or did so only after they complained about it on social media after months of delays. Reporter Jagger Blaec covered the controversy earlier this week for The Establishment

Ebony officials did not return calls for comment, but one executive said on social media that the writers would be paid. On Wednesday night, the company tweeted that it's working to "streamline and improve efficiencies throughout our operation" and would "honor our commitment to our partners." 

The company did not say when freelancers would be paid, however, which has been frustrating for journalists.

"No matter how many times I submitted an invoice there was this very weird runaround," said Mikki Kendall, a prolific writer based in Chicago who focuses on race and feminist issues. "At Ebony … just the amount of time I was spending to collect this money was more than it's worth."

Kendall, who said she hasn't written for Ebony since she never got paid for two pieces she wrote in 2015, is just one of many writers here and nationally who say they've been stiffed by the publication in recent years. A hashtag — #ebonyowes — is gaining notice on Twitter. 

While freelancers often experience slow or late payments from publications, the situation puts many of those writers of color in an awkward predicament: They don't want to burn bridges at a magazine they grew up admiring and aspiring to write for, but they also didn't sign on to work for free. Many still view Ebony as a place that will take pitches other publications won't — and it's a magazine that's been valued in their families for generations.

Ebony debuted in the 1940s as a publication by and for black people. Its first issue sold out its 25,000 copies. Founded by John H. Johnson, the magazine was a cornerstone of a publishing empire that included JET and inspired many other rivals such as EssenceVibe and The SourceEbony's circulation peaked at nearly 2 million in 1997.

City officials are considering making Ebony and JET's former South Loop office building on Michigan Avenue a protected landmark. 

Kendall, who has built an audience of nearly 74,000 Twitter followers, said she grew up in an "old-school" black family who wanted her to get a secure government job and lead a comfortable life. 

Her parents didn't get writing for a living, "but when I was published in Ebony — that they understood," Kendall said. 

That's what makes not getting paid more frustrating.

"It just soured me on what should have been a super triumphant moment," she said. 

Who Pays Writers, a crowdsourced website detailing freelancers' experience with various publications, has less than flattering reviews of Ebony. The consensus there is that "it is impossible to be paid."

Cat DiStasio, a freelancer based in Ohio, said she got partially paid for copy editing work on two commemorative issues Ebony recently published. But after months of not receiving the rest of her balance — about $2,000 — and getting the runaround from the magazine, she finally took to Twitter to air her grievances. She got paid quickly afterward, but didn't get an apology or explanation and doesn't plan on working with Ebony again.

"I didn’t coin this phrase but 'people die from exposure.' I work for money. That's why I work," DiStasio said.

Amid declining circulation, Johnson Publishing sold Ebony and JET last year to CVG Group LLC, a black-owned private equity firm based in Texas. 

Ebony and CVG executives did not return messages, but CVG co-founder Willard Jackson apparently denied any wrongdoing via a Facebook message to a reporter who reached out about Ebony's payment issues. 

Writers tell the same story about trying to get paid: They inquire about a month or so after sending their invoices. When they do, they usually talk to a different person than the person they previously talked to in the magazine's accounts payable department. Sometimes that person says they simply misplaced the invoice and need the writer to resubmit, further delaying payment. Lots of emails and calls go unanswered.

Kendall said she thinks Ebony can salvage its reputation, starting with a modern-day payment processing system. She said she knows eight other writers who haven't been paid for their work in Ebony, and gets why many of them don't want to speak out.

"There’s so few places, especially when you’re new, that you can break in when you can’t break in anywhere else. But money is money," Kendall said. "For up-and-coming writers: Don’t get discouraged if you run into this problem; there’s other outlets."