For more than 40 years, Essence Magazine has amplified the voices, championed the causes and celebrated the achievements of Black women around the world.
For much of its existence it has been largely unrivaled in its ability to reach and relate to multiple generations of Black girls and women at the same time. In recent years, many believe that this influence has diminished as Essence and the journalism industry at large has struggled to keep up with increased advances in technology and decreased attention spans.
Vanessa Bush, a long-time editor at the magazine who moved into the chief position on the masthead a year ago, is aware of the challenges the magazine faces but is confident that Essence is back on the right track and can remain relevant for both new and old readers.
I recently caught up with Vanessa to talk about the importance and value of Essence, learn more about her vision for the publication and to get some insight into her career background and the things that keep her inspired and on her toes.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): You’ve been the Editor in Chief of Essence for a little over a year now. What’s been the most surprising or fulfilling part of that year?
Vanessa Bush (VB): Getting to know the audience deeper through social media.
H+S: As the EIC of a marquee magazine, the buck stops with you. Was becoming the boss an easy transition for you or is it something you have to learn and adjust to on a daily basis?
VB: Honestly, it’s been an evolution. I feel like I learn something new everyday by being in this position. What the expectations are, how to collaborate with others to get the best results, etc. I understand the authority that we have in this space but it still in some ways amazes me how important it is for people to see themselves in this magazine. And to be and feel like they’re a part of this experience. Whether it’s ppl who come out for the [Essence] festival or people we highlight in the magazine or through social media. They want and need to know that their voice matters.
H+S: There’s a new wave of girls and young women who are discovering Essence magazine. How do you create content that appeals to the younger generation without alienating the women who grew up with the publication?
VB: By listening. By asking questions about what they would like to see and read and making sure in our answer that we’re considerate in creating appealing content that reaches them on multiple platforms. We also want to be considerate in how we’re getting the message across and covering certain topics based on what people tell us and engage them in our conversations on twitter for our lunch time debates or really just listening to the various voices.
Speaking of the younger generation and the changing pace of journalism, Essence has heavily invested resources into digital and mobile. For instance we recently launched the new Hair channel and we’re working with established bloggers and influencers on the site, etc.
H+S: Does that mean Essence has a digital first priority now? Or, is print still the main focus?
VB: Print is still absolutely the cornerstone. Even if you look across other Time Inc titles or the industry at large the piece that produces the most revenue is print. We’re investing a lot in the digital space now and we may see a shift in the percentages but for now print is still relevant.
H+S: What types of investments are you making on the print side?
VB: Earlier this year, we launched a redesign and put significant resources into contacting our audience through focus groups and consumer research to see what kinds of images, stories and cover subjects women wanted to see. We thought it was important to invest money in that to see where the Eessence woman is today and we used that to inform how we approached our redesign of the magazine and the home page. It was critical to ensuring that we reflect where Black women are today.
H+S: Being the most visible media outlet for Black women comes with its own set of challenges and criticisms. One of the biggest, and I’ve had this same thought at times, is that the magazine’s content isn’t or rather hasn’t been relevant or fresh. And it seems like because you’re the ‘only’ that there’s a sense of complacency there. Have you heard that before and what are you doing to change that perception?
VB: I would challenge that perception. Many times when I do hear those kinds of comments, when I dig a little bit further to see how often that person or individuals have read the magazine in the past 6 months to a year or 2 years the answer is typically “not much.” So there’s a misperception that there’s been stagnation with the content and I would challenge people who feel that the content has not kept up with the times, to really do a deeper dive.
I absolutely believe that what we’re covering now is in sync with where we are [as Black women], what we’re moving toward and what we’re thinking about. What’s difficult in this 24/7 media cycle age is that any monthly publication will feel like they’ve missed the mark because news happens minute by minute. That makes it challenging but it’s a challenge that I welcome and think about in terms of by the time that a story comes out in the magazine what place is she going to be in and how are we helping drive the conversation or add context to what’s already been said on a topic or issue.
H+S: Great point. This year’s Essence Festival was the most well-attended fest to date. Do you have any plans to add other events to the portfolio or will Essence Festival remain the major focus each year?
VB: Essence Fest is the queen of our live event experiences. However, this fall we will be introducing our street style awards during New York Fashion Week which is our nod to how Black women often set the trends and are constant trend influencers and style disrupters. We’ll be doing a block party in Brooklyn with tons of activities for everyday fashionistas, designers,etc. And in the evening we’re doing an award dinner and honoring 4 women who’ve really taken and embraced the whole street style movement.
H+S: At a recent ColorComm event you talked about making a career change in your 30s which led you to where you are today. Many people may want to make a drastic career change but they don’t know how to begin. What’s the first thing they should do?
VB: I think you have to believe that you can actually make it happen. Had I started from a point of “this will never work,” then I probably wouldn’t be where I am. So, my advice would be to be sure that this is something you want and know you can do because if you’re not sure about it how are you going to convince other people?
H+S: At the same event, you also talked about “creating space” between your work and your family/home life. That is much easier said than done. How have you done it?
VB: I think I’ve just reminded myself every day that what I do isn’t who I am and it isn’t all of who I am either. It’s an important part, but it isn’t all of me. So if I keep that top of mind it’s easier to keep things in their proper place. I’ve also had the benefit of watching others in this role and how they’ve managed both sides. That’s helped me to see how I want to conduct my life in this space.
H+S: Where do you go or turn for inspiration?
VB: I’m a huge lover of magazines so I look at a lot of other magazines that aren’t necessarily in my space: The Atlantic, Fast Company, Inc, etc., to see a different point of view. That really helps me to keep from having one stagnant way of thinking and I also like to go out at lunch time. I don’t eat lunch at my desk. By going out, I can see and observe other people and pick up on their energy.
H+S: What advice would you give to a young journalist who has aspirations of rising up the masthead to become EIC one day?
VB: Make sure that you hone your skill set. I’ve always tried to learn something new as my career has evolved. Get deeper into social media, take writing classes. Don’t forget how important your skills are; basic skills like spelling, punctuation and grammar. It reflects on your commitment.
H+S: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
VB: What has helped me a lot is to be able to identify sponsors and advocates who can speak on your behalf when you’re not in the room and recognizing the value of that.
H+S: Even though you’re the EIC, you do sometimes have a byline in the book aside from your monthly column, like your recent interview with FLOTUS. Are you open to receiving PR pitches?
VB: Yes, absolutely. I like big ideas, investigative pieces and the more serious and meaty thought pieces. If I’m presented with a story or a pitch like that I get really excited.
H+S: What is one thing journalists can do to have a better relationship with PR people?
VB: I get pitched a lot about things we don’t cover in the magazine by people who clearly don’t realize who we are and I find that frustrating. It’s all about building a relationship. But, the onus is on the journalist to kind of explain to publicists who we are and how we can work together. We have to know what we want and communicate that effectively.
H+S: You’ve been able to do things in your career that were beyond your initial vision. What is one major goal that you haven’t accomplished yet?
VB: I haven’t written my own book. That’s next on the to do list. It would be non-fiction or something inspirational.
H+S: What is one of your short- and long term goals for Essence?
VB: A short term goal is for us to continue to evolve in the video space. And for the long term it’s really about making sure we evolve and have a presence in every place that the [Essence reader] is wherever that turns out to be. And I just want to make sure that we keep up with the times and remain relevant.
H+S: I’m sure you knew this was coming…but, Suede Magazine is still to this day one of my favorite magazines ever. I had 3 of the 4 copies until last year when a friend found the missing copy on ebay and brought it for me for my birthday. I think I cried, which gives you a glimpse into how important that publication was for Black Women. It was like lightening in a bottle. Do you have a plan to bring it back?
VB: It’s still a work in progress and it’s really one of those things that have to do with resources. It’s important that we use resources to make sure that the core of Essence is where it needs to be but I still have hope and intent for Suede. Also, some of the people who worked on Suede are still at Essence and if you look closely you’ll see some influences from the new color scheme to how we approach some of the content.
My favorite inspirational quote is… “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins.”
I had the most fun writing or working on… I had the most fun planning a recent vacation.
I’m most proud of… The balance I continue to have between my work and personal life.
My dream interview would be with… FLOTUS was my dream interview and I’ve done that so I would have to say…Sade.
iPhone, Android or Blackberry? iPhone
My 3 favorite mobile apps are… Twitter, NJ Transit and Pinterest for planning my [upcoming] wedding.
I have…unread emails in my inbox right now… 9
A fun fact about me is… I am a trained culinary chef.