“I’m absolutely thrilled. This truly is my dream job. I’ve loved Essence since I was a kid,” Vanessa Bush, the new editor-in-chief of Essence, told theGrio. The new head of the black women’s lifestyle bible has worked for numerous publications over the course of her career, including Life and Glamour, but none other has drawn her passionate devotion. In her new role, Bush is thrilled to take her decade-plus years of experience in journalism and apply it in service to African-American women, at a magazine that inspired her both as a black woman and budding journalist as a child.
She even remembers her first encounter with the glossy. “It’s something that I will never forget. I can remember creating mini-magazines with my mom,” Bush reminisced. “One of the few places where I could actually cut out pictures of women who look like me was Essence magazine. So to be able to bring that full circle decades later is just a dream. Essence is the embodiment of the quintessential black woman who is empowered and that’s an achiever, that’s looking for inspiration, that’s looking for wise counsel. That’s always trying to be the best that she can be. Essence has always been that guide book that shows us how to do that.”
The backstory of the new Essence chief
The Columbia School of Journalism graduate began her career as a staff writer before moving into editorial duties. In 2000, Bush began working at Time, Inc., now the parent company of Essence Communications. Simultaneously, after operating independently since its founding by Edward Lewis in 1970, Essence began its initial partnership with Time in 2000. Bush made her move at that time, and joined the Essence team as a beauty and fashion features editor.
“The beauty of working at Essence is that as my interests have changed, I’ve been able to move into different areas,” says the tome’s new lead, who has covered health, wellness and parenting for Essence, in addition to penning longform pieces of journalism on important social topics, such as childhood obesity. “I’ve worked in practically every department at the magazine!” Bush said with a merry laugh. “I think it’s prepared me really well for actually running the publication.”
In her new role, Bush intends to address the fact that many black women, while more optimistic about their lives than ever according to various reports, are still dissatisfied with their representation in media.
“It just isn’t doing a very good job of portraying our true selves, the complete picture of who we are,” she told theGrio. “I still see Essence as that place that helps illuminate, inspire, educate, empower, and elevate black women. There’s still a clear need for that. Our new direction is all about the promise and the joy of our lives, and celebrating that, continuing with our tradition of bringing awareness to the issues in our community as well as our tradition of journalistic excellence. We want to be a part of those critical conversations that are happening right now.”
Bush has been in an acting editor-in-chief role since February 2013. In this capacity, she has used the pages of Essence to address issues such as gun violence and racial profiling, and will continue to lead the magazine in such a way that it can not only provide an accurate mirror of black life, but will also create dialogues that move discussions surrounding critical issues in positive directions.
Bush on publishing business challenges
With the online arena exploding, in addition to the existence of upstart books such as Sister 2 Sister magazine, there are many more choices for black women today–and greater competition for this audience, which is a lucrative one, particularly for beauty and fashion advertisers. Black women bring billions of dollars a year in revenue to both industries. In addition, magazine publishing overall is facing declines in ad revenue. Essence has been duly impacted.
“While its circulation remains strong, hovering near 1.1 million in 2012,” reports The New York Times in a July 2013 feature about the magazine’s future, “like many magazines it has been hurt by declining print advertising. Essence had an 11.7 percent decrease in ad pages and a 5.5 percent decrease in ad revenue, to $24.6 million, in the second quarter, compared with $26 million in the second quarter of 2012.”
Bush has revealed plans to improve Essence’s digital presence in order to combat these trends. This includes developing a stronger social media footprint, and enhancing the magazine’s tablet edition, which Bush said, “has been highly successful for us and engaging.”
She stressed that the monthly planning efforts of Essence Communications is hardly one-dimensional, and includes the many media and business arms connected with its print element. This means that, unlike many other magazines, Essence has several revenue streams, ranging from books — such at its most recent, successful picture-driven book about Michelle Obama — to the phenomenally popular Essence Festival, which drew 540,000 participants this year.
“We really do think of it in a very holistic way,” Bush said of the total Essence brand. “While there is a lot of competition out there, the quality of the various publications is very different. What Essence has been able to bring to the table is that consistent level of authority about black women, as well as a journalistic excellence that we bring to bear that not everyone has the resources to do. I feel very fortunate that we have that. That’s what really sets us apart.”
Praise for the entire Essence team
Bush also praised the “hugely passionate” team behind Essence for its ability to compete on many platforms in an agile manner, while keeping the needs of the Essence reader front of mind. Through the resources of Time, Inc. (which attained 100 percent ownership of the glossy in 2005), and the drive of the Essence staff, Bush is confident that the magazine will continue to grow, overcoming the challenges it and many monthlies are facing.
Leadership at Time Inc. is equally confident that Bush is ready to bring her vision to fruition as Essencemagazine’s editorial lead.
“Vanessa’s wealth of knowledge about the Essence brand and connection to our community of nearly 10 million readers has deepened reader engagement,” commented Essence president Michelle Ebanks in a press release announcing Bush’s new position. “Vanessa is poised to deliver on our mission to help African-American women move their lives forward – not only through the magazine, but by meeting their needs across all of our branded platforms.”
A bright future for Essence – and Bush
Having put the finishing touches on the latest issue of Essence that is soon to hit the stands featuring Kelly Rowland on the cover, Bush will be embarking on an imminent vacation at the end of August with her 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.
Not just the new leader of Essence, she also exemplifies that modern black woman, which has come to be embodied by first lady Michelle Obama. Yes, Bush has her amazing career, but she knows how to balance work and family, and does so with a great sense of style — while making time for love in her life.
“I’m newly engaged and looking forward to all the excitement of not just running the magazine,” Bush told theGrio, “and working with the rest of the team on building the brand, but also taking some time to lean back a little, and just enjoy my family and have some fun, because that’s important, too.”
article by Alexis Garrett Stodghill via thegrio.com