Shortly after Amy DuBois Barnett ’91 assumed her position as editor-in-chief of the iconic Ebony Magazine in May 2010, she transformed the publication – from the first page to the last.
The oldest and largest magazine for African-American readers in the country, Ebony serves as a celebration of news, events and people significant to African-Americans. Since taking the helm of the iconic 67-year-old publication, Barnett has changed everything from the logo to the color palette to the font.
After assuming her position, Barnett suggested a sweeping redesign of the magazine, for both its visual elements and its content. “I wanted to bring a fresh and modern perspective to both the content and the design to make it more appealing and accessible again to a younger reader,” she said.
“I think that my biggest issue was that a lot of people considered it to be kind of like your grandmother’s magazine,” she said.
Within a year of the redesign, the magazine grew in circulation from 1.1 million to 1.23 million between the first half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, and it reached 1.26 million by the second half of 2011, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But Barnett’s journey to Ebony was hardly a linear one.
In her early life, Barnett had always been discouraged from pursuing journalism, though writing, had been her passion since she was young, she said.
“So many people told me that (journalism) was a triangular field – that there were few people at the top and tons of people at the bottom,” she said.
Ultimately, Barnett went through three different careers before breaking into the magazine industry. But throughout her life, she continued to write.
A winding path to journalism
“I thought I was going to write the Great American Novel – that was my intention,” Barnett said.
Her journey to Ebony began as an undergraduate at Brown, where Barnett took courses in creative writing and English while pursuing a double concentration in political science and French.
“I was very interested in international law and international policy,” Barnett said, noting that she had once planned on attending law school, which she called a “repository” for smart, liberal arts students who are unsure of what career to pursue.
Throughout her time at Brown, Barnett said she developed a fearlessness that eventually led to her pursuing her passion. “There was a professor (at Brown) that really kicked my ass in English,” she said. Receiving her first ever B-minus in college was “very distressing” at the time, she said.
But fearlessness would not yet lead her to journalism. After graduation, Barnett first worked as a financial analyst, then studied fashion merchandising before she landed at University College Dublin in Ireland, where she studied writing and literature.
Studying in Ireland cemented her decision to pursue writing. While there, Barnett applied and was accepted to Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.
“But while I was at grad school for creative writing, I needed to pay my rent,” Barnett said. This was what finally led her to her first job in journalism – writing for a website called Fashion Planet.
Navigating the industry
“Journalism is the perfect career for adventurous and curious people,” Barnett said. “At root, that’s who it’s for.”
Her abilities as a writer and her own adventurous spirit and curiosity about the world made journalism “perfect” for her character, she said. Since she began working as a journalist, Barnett has covered topics as diverse as travel, parenting, health, fashion, politics and lifestyle, traversing the world for her stories.
Working as managing editor for Fashion Almanac magazine, formerly the website Fashion Planet, turned out to be a career-altering experience. “I was very, very good at it,” she said. “It turned out to be my calling.”
At the age of 30, Barnett became the first black woman to run a major magazine when she was named editor-in-chief of Honey Magazine.
Barnett went on to work for Teen People and Harper’s Bazaar, wrote a self-help book titled “Get Yours!: How to Have Everything You Ever Dreamed of and More” and started her own consulting firm, before becoming editor-in-chief of Ebony in May 2010.
Even though her success in journalism has been paramount, Barnett said she still harbors her passion for creative writing. “I have two novels sitting in a drawer right now,” she said.
Transforming an icon
“I think most African-Americans have grown up with Ebony Magazine in their house,” Barnett said. So tackling a complete redesign of the magazine – the first in its 67-year publication history – was a daunting moment in her career.
“It’s a very iconic publication,” Barnett said.
Barnett worked on layout redesigns, font and palette changes and the implementation of new sections in the magazine called departments.
Redesigning the magazine was “nerve-wracking,” she said, because the publication is so well-established. “There are very few African-American households that don’t have that book on their coffee table,” Barnett said.
Since the redesign, the magazine has seen an increase in circulation numbers and unique visits to its website, and Barnett’s personal letters from readers demonstrate the change’s effectiveness, she said. “The quantitative and the qualitative response has been really positive,” Barnett said. “That’s been extremely gratifying.”
More than a magazine
On the morning of Nov. 6, Barnett tweeted a message to approximately 14,500 followers: “Barack Obama represents my values. And he is an amazing example for my son… #forward #vote.”
”We were advocating for President Obama,” Barnett said of the staff at Ebony. Of his re-election, she said, “We’re just really thrilled.”
Barack and Michelle Obama graced the cover of Ebony Magazine’s November 2012 issue, which promised “an intimate conversation with our President” and “the President’s personal message to all Black families” inside the magazine.
The publication “has successfully survived a hostile publishing industry, catering primarily to the interests of a growing and diverse African-American community,” Francoise Hamlin, assistant professor of history and Africana studies, wrote in an email to The Herald. “Significantly, the magazine has broken the mold in many of its issues by its handling of sensitive issues and by featuring an array of black personalities, politicians, artists, musicians an
d leaders on its cover – many more than in more mainstream publications.”
Ebony plays an important role in documenting the achievements of African-Americans, serving as a “magazine of record” over its 67-year publication history, Barnett said.
“We have covered – in a very unique way – the events that have taken place during that period of time,” she said, noting that Ebony is the only mainstream magazine to have covered the Civil Rights Movement “in a significant way.”
“When you look back at the Ebony archives, you will see a tremendous number of very important and very significant image of that period of time that nobody else has,” Barnett said.
Speaking about Ebony’s tagline, Barnett said, “When I say ‘it’s more than a magazine, it’s a movement,’ I’m talking about the fact that Ebony not only holds this iconic place in the African-American community, but that it also advocates for its readership in a way that not many other magazine brands do.”