Yet the sale, no matter its community significance, suggests that minority-focused magazines will forever remain along the fringes of major media. With a circulation of over 1 million and some 8.5 million monthly readers, Essence is hardly niche—and it should have been appealing to major publishing corporations.
It’s true that lifestyle giant Condé Nast is in the midst of a major austerity program, but its competitor Hearst recently acquired indie publisher Rodale, which owns titles like Men’s Health and Prevention. And the mid-sized Penske Media—owner of Variety and Robb Report—just snapped up Rolling Stone. Despite being profitable—and operating the massively successful music festival that anchored the summer-movie hit Girls Trip—no major publisher thought that Essence was a worthy acquisition.
Instead, Essence is now in the hands of Dennis, a media newcomer who made his fortune in shea-butter cosmetics. His firm, Sundial Brands, was founded to provide hair- and skin-care products to minority women, and was inspired by traditional shea-butter recipes found in Dennis’s native Liberia. Bain Capital took a minority stake in Sundial in 2015 in a deal that valued the company at roughly $700 million. And last year Dennis’s firm—which generates some $240 million in annual sales—partnered with Unilever to create a $100 million “New Voices Fund” to support black female entrepreneurs.
Clearly Dennis has committed his life (and substantial economic resources) to supporting minority women. But he’s entering the industry as a neophyte at a time when media—particularly independent media—is struggling for survival. More curiously, his history with beauty brands, which will be core Essence advertisers, also raises questions about the magazine’s ability to truly separate its business and editorial side—a core value of traditional media that is quickly eroding in the age of advertorials and native advertising.
Ebanks insists this sacred wall will still be honored—and that Essence is not directly owned by Sundial, but rather a separate Dennis-helmed entity. “Essence is not owned by a beauty-products firm,” she says. “It is owned by Essence Ventures, an independent African-American owned company focused on merging content, community, and commerce to meet the evolving cultural and lifestyle needs of women of color.”
Clearly, Ebank’s team hopes that Essence won’t just evolve, but thrive and survive for the next 48 years.