Ebony Jet Building in Chicago (240397)
Credit: Erick Johnson

It all started with the Twitter hashtag “#EbonyOwes.”

Over the past several months, one of the most prestigious African-American magazines has come under fire for not paying its freelancers either because of neglect or malice. Some of those writers include prominent Black figures such as “Queen Sugar” author Natalie Baszile and comedian, writer and cultural critic Baratunde Thurston. Overall, Ebony owes more than $200,000 to freelancers, according to the National Writers Union.

In late April, EBONY Media released a statement about the state of payment for freelancers.

“EBONY Media values the work of our freelancers and writers,” read the statement. “We understand their concerns and we know that their unique talent and dedication to telling our stories have been an integral part of our success. As a part of our strategic growth plan, EBONY Media is working diligently to streamline and improve efficiencies throughout our operations and we will honor our commitment to our partners.” On June 3, Ebony released another statement saying writers would be paid by the end of the month.

Larry Goldbetter, president of the NWU, remained skeptical.

“Some of the invoices we’ve seen are over a year old,” said Goldbetter in a statement. “We are pleased EBONY Media has been responsive to the grievance, but we are now at a point where we need a payment schedule in writing. For a freelancer to have to struggle to pay rent because Ebony owes is ridiculous.”

NWU, which currently represents 23 writers who are owed a total of close to $50,000 from Ebony, has said that since Ebony’s June 3 announcement, only one freelancer has been paid, despite the company saying that payments would be made on a rolling schedule based on the oldest invoices.

Morgan Campbell, a writer for the Toronto Star, said Ebony owes him $4,000. He’s currently working with the NWU and its legal team to help secure payment. He wrote three sports stories for Ebony that were filed this January and February, including one on how the NCAA exploited free, mostly Black, labor for monetary gain. According to Campbell, his contract stated that he would receive payment within 45 days of publication.

“I invoiced one time in February and didn’t think about it afterward,” he told the AmNews. “I didn’t expect to get my money by March and I figured I thought they would pay me 45 days later after the last story had been published.” That didn’t happen.

Campbell still figured he’d get paid eventually. “You deal every now and then with people who don’t pay, but I had no reason to think Ebony wouldn’t pay me,” he said. “I thought there was just a lag time.”

Around the same time, another writer tipped Campbell off to the #EbonyOwes hashtag on the social media website Twitter. He saw tweets from multiple freelancers who weren’t paid for their work by Ebony. Since he was still in the 45- day window waiting for payment, Campbell didn’t say anything. After May rolled around and he still wasn’t paid, he started speaking out about Ebony on social media.

Campbell said he emailed then managing editor Kathy Chaney about payment. She said she was talking to accounts payable about getting freelancers their money. A week or so later, Ebony announced close to a dozen layoffs and a transition from its Chicago headquarters to Los Angeles. CVG, a Texas-based investment firm, bought the magazine in 2016 with eyes on expansion. Campbell’s one real lifeline for payment was gone.

“When they fire the person that’s working to get you paid, you lose hope,” said Campbell.

When several prominent figures started tweeting about how Ebony owes them money, they were blocked on Twitter by Ebony’s page.

“I was the first person they blocked,” said Campbell. “And I know they blocked Adrienne Samuels (Gibbs) and Baratunde. I was basically posting their tweets saying ‘Cool story, bro. But pay the people who wrote it.’” Campbell believes that all of this behavior only made #EbonyOwes stronger on social media.

“It’s indicative of a company that still doesn’t understand how to use social media and how social media works,” said Campbell. “There’s a lot of legacy media companies that don’t understand how social media acts and how to conduct yourself. #EbonyOwes went from a hashtag that was dying to a hashtag that had a few more weeks.”

Another union came out in support of the Ebony freelancers: the AFL-CIO. On Twitter, the union told the magazine, “don’t be greedy” and “pay up” with a picture of the phrase “Freelancing Ain’t Free.”