By: Lucia Moses
For its holiday issue last year, Vibe Vixen, the female offshoot of urban music and lifestyle magazine Vibe, held up hip hop singer Kelis as a star who’s made her dreams come true. At the time, the one-and-a-half-year-old magazine had its own dreams, of stepping up its frequency from twice to six times yearly in 2007. Recently, parent company Vibe Media Group changed its tune, announcing that Vixen’s August/September issue would be the last stand-alone issue; instead, the title would live on on the Web and in the form of quarterly special issues.
Steve Aaron, who announced the change shortly after becoming CEO of Vibe Media Group in July, said the title, which had about 400,000 subscribers and 147 ad pages in the first half of the year, per Publishers Information Bureau, had trouble achieving scale. “As a self-sustaining, subscription-based magazine, it didn’t really work,” Aaron said. “I don’t think it’s a black women’s magazine issue. It’s a challenge of publishing young women’s magazines. You need a million circ to attract the core beauty advertisers.”
Still, the Vibe Vixen story strikes a familiar chord among magazines aimed at black women. In spring 2005, Time Inc. folded Suede, the urban fashion magazine it launched a year earlier for women of color. Two years earlier, Honey and Heart & Soul magazines faced their ends when parent company Vanguarde Media declared bankruptcy (Heart & Soul continues publishing, by Heart & Soul Enterprises in Baltimore.)
Observers said that as niche publications, those titles were especially vulnerable to the challenges facing magazines in general: stagnant newsstand sales along with audiences and advertisers that are increasingly shifting attention and dollars to the Internet, cable and other media.
For magazines targeting black women, different factors have been at play. Major marketers have been slow to buy into these titles, failing, publishers say, to recognize the value of their readership to advertisers. Michelle Ebanks, president of Time Inc.’s Essence, noted that there are more women’s magazines in general, so it’s no surprise women’s magazines fold in greater numbers. Still, even at a circ of 1.1 million, 37-year-old Essence gets a disproportionately small amount of fashion advertising, considering, she said, how much its readers spend on apparel. “If that’s a challenge for us, it’s insurmountable for younger titles,” she said.
Others said the general market’s embrace of minority subjects has stolen some of niche magazines’ thunder. “Some nonethnic magazines have done a good job of expanding their aperture to include women of color,” said Keith Clinkscales, who founded Vanguarde and is now senior vp, content development and enterprises at ESPN. He also noted, however, that hiring of and providing content for women of color has been disappointing.
African-Americans, however, are still struggling to land on most women’s magazine covers. Interestingly, however, when Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson graced last March’s issue of Vogue, much of the buzz was about Hudson’s curves rather than her skin color.
Alex Alonso, multicultural director, Carat USA, said that to stay competitive with the general market, niche magazines need to do a better job of keeping up with how their audiences use media. Unlike Hispanic-targeted titles, publications for black women have to forge a connection based not on a language barrier but culture, he said. Men’s magazines have stayed afloat by positioning themselves as urban lifestyle and thus attracting a multicultural audience, a tactic their female counterparts might do well to emulate. “If they define themselves from more of a mindset perspective, I think they’ll have a better chance of success,” Alonso said.