Emerge, the Washington-based magazine that made waves with its aggressive and sometimes flamboyant coverage of black culture and politics, fired most of its staff yesterday and announced that it is suspending publication.
Vanguarde Media, whose majority stockholder is Black Entertainment Television, pulled the plug on the 10-year-old monthly, which has a circulation of 170,000, or more than most political magazines. Vanguarde said it hopes to relaunch the magazine in New York in 2001, although insiders said such a publication would probably not be called Emerge.
"We were all surprised, because in the seven years I've been here, we've won more than 40 national journalism awards," said Editor George Curry, a former Chicago Tribune reporter who was among those let go. "We have both whites and African Americans who have indicated their interest in reading a serious black news magazine. . . . One of the magazine's problems was a lack of promotional dollars."
In what turned out to be his final editor's note, Curry said in a defiant tone that his small staff had been depleted by the "unsettled atmosphere" surrounding Emerge. If future changes meant "that Emerge will not have the same cutting-edge focus it has become known for, then you, the readers, will ultimately determine whether the decision to change was good or bad," he wrote in the June issue. The cover story is "H. Rap Brown: Minister or Murderer?"
Robert Johnson, the president of BET, remains chairman of the board of Vanguarde Media but was merely "kept informed" of the decision, said his spokesman, Michael Lewellen. "For a longstanding title like Emerge to have to go this route is certainly a disappointment. It's clearly a business decision."
Johnson acquired Emerge in the early '90s, though financial problems nearly forced him to close it in 1994, but he has been critical of the magazine in private conversations. Vanguarde has also assumed ownership of two other BET magazines, Heart & Soul and BET Weekend.
Curry said Johnson had become disengaged in recent years as he pursued other ventures. "Bob has given me free rein to run Emerge. Even when there was criticism from his friends, he never flinched," said Curry, who is president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the first African American elected to that post.
Emerge often seemed to court controversy, running a 1993 cover picture portraying Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with an Aunt Jemima-like handkerchief on his head. A recent piece by Mary Frances Berry on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his opposition to affirmative action was headlined "Jeb Crow."
Other contributors included former New York Times and Chicago Tribune reporter Nathaniel Sheppard, Kevin Merida of The Washington Post, Newsday editor Les Payne and Kevin Blackistone of the Dallas Morning News. The Detroit News has called it "perhaps the most important African-American publication in the nation."
In a memo, Vanguarde Media chief Keith Clinkscales said that Emerge is on "immediate publishing hiatus" and that "unfortunately, some editorial positions were eliminated. We all wish our colleagues well with their future endeavors."
Emerge was launched in late 1989 by Wilmer Ames Jr., a former Time reporter, with backing from Time Inc. and BET, which later took control. On the day that Curry reported for work in 1993, Ames died, and Curry soon succeeded him.
The key player now is Roy Johnson, a former editor at Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated, who was hired in April as Vanguarde Media's editorial director. He is also co-author of books by basketball stars Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson. Johnson said last night that he and Clinkscales have been urging Time Warner since 1995 to launch a magazine called Savoy, which, unlike Emerge, would not be a news magazine. He said the proposed new magazine would be "a smart, broad lifestyle publication that covers the news, personalities and trends that are important to people of color. The model we used was Vanity Fair."