Bryan Monroe, father, journalist, good friend, passed away last week. His full life and career have been eulogized elegantly by many on Twitter and in the pages of publications where he once worked. They speak for themselves. However, his participation in one particular moment in media history and Black culture deserves recognition.
Bryan took over as editor-in-chief at Ebony Magazine just following the death of its visionary founder, John H Johnson, and at the peak of the company’s ongoing battle between old and new. I’m not sure I ever heard the story about how he got there, why he was chosen or why he accepted, but it was surprise –pleasantly so — to many. A visible sign that Ebony was seeking change.
That battle between the old and the new was not a new one. In fact, it had been fought for well more than a decade -since the dominance of Essence, BET, MTV and cable news in the 80s, throughout the 90s as magazines such as VIBE and The Source, and early online efforts like Black Planet and NetNoir captured imaginations and further defined the many different ways to be Black.
And even though Ebony outlasted and outsold nearly all of them, the buzz they created and the promise of what black media could be for a new generation weakened the image of Ebony. It had become the auntie you enjoy over for dinner, but not the cool friend you hang out with — the gold standard profile that all magazines hope to be to their readers.
He, the team he inherited and the team he brought in, were tasked reinventing a place where the ghosts of its amazing past haunted every fiber of the midcentury furniture, foiled wallpapers and psychedelic carpeting that made the building unique. A place where Lerone Bennett’s legacy not only cast a huge shadow, but where Lerone Bennett still came into the office, as did Eunice Johnson and a host of the amazing people who had made Ebony and Jet great in its heyday.
Bryan took on the daunting challenge of appreciating and respecting the absolute beauty of working in a company built by a legendary Black founder, in a corporate culture where smart Black people were paid what they were worth, had expense accounts, traveled freely, entertained clients, had Neckbone Tuesdays, shut down work to toast visiting celebrities with champagne and spent their days celebrating all that is Black and beautiful, and balancing all of that with the painful and harsh reality that 95% of what made Johnson Publishing wonderful was also absolutely and completely unsustainable.
Because it was also place where everyone stopped work to takelunch at the same time in the cafeteria, where people’s paychecks were docked for lateness, that still handed out physical paychecks on Fridays and where staying beyond 5pm was frowned upon. It was the gentle flow of a magazine with 3-month old stories trying to compete with the 24-hour news cycle, witty and increasingly influential bloggers, websites that changed ten times an hour and the still burgeoning specter of social media, all done by people who were young, hungry, caffeinated and willing to work all day and night.
It was a role that took a huge amount of guts and not a tiny amount of ego. A special brand of arrogance that leads you to inagine have the skills and ideas to revive a classic brand. But everyone who joined him, and everyone who came after, carried that arrogance. It was a requirement to do what needed to be done.
And also love — love for a brand that meant so much to so many, and could, if handled correctly, be much more to an even larger audience.
But it was big ship to turn, too big to turn swiftly. It took more than two years, as one example, to convince leadership that the logo needed a reboot. Technology had to be rethought. Classic photos from the famous collection had copyright issues. Budgets had been done in Mr. Johnson’s head and nobody knew which issues were profitable and which were not. Jet beauties were still being picked from a box of self-sent Polaroids, even as the internet selfies gave people more followers than being a Jet Beauty could ever bring.
Change was not always pretty, but it was always exciting and the magazine shifted and advanceed dramatically, if slowly. And even though this is appreciation, I would be lying if I said Bryan did it all right. I’d be lying if I said any of us did it all right. Bryan, because of his background and dedication to journalism, always argued in favored of even-handed journalism. Others argued that there is no such thing as balanced journalism when the scales of black progress have been tipped unfavorably. That Ebony needed an unapologetically Black and strong point of view if it were to break through the noise and clutter.
Who was right? Who knows? But Bryan was more than willing to take both credit and blame for success and failure.
His tenure was interrupted, in ways that are hard to fathom, by the economic downturn of 2008. Within a matter of weeks, entire categories of advertisers dropped multi-million dollar contracts as they sought bailouts and bankruptcy protection. JET Magazine lost 44 of its 88 pages in a year when pharmaceutical and auto companies shut down budgets. Trying to survive, leadership threw everything against the wall to diversify its revenue streams to everything from a greeting card line to furniture to dating sites, even as the staff argued that the ultimate innovation would be more and better content, and paying writers fairly and on time.
The gains until that moment were lost in what seemed like an instant, demanding multiple rounds of cuts like the jettisoning of fuel on a crashing airliner, then crews of new talent, new ideas and yet more attempts at reinvention. There’s a newer’ one in the work at this moment.
And that’s the way it goes.
Bryan Monroe, during his period at Ebony, was either the pilot of an experimental rocket ship carrying a load of promise and opportunity, or he was simply the first captain of the Titanic. Looking back, both things were true.
And for that I salute him for his courage.