They Had a Dream

Vanguarde's Vision of a Black Magazine Empire Drowns in Red Ink

For Ron Stodghill, editing Vanguarde Media's Savoy magazine was the fulfillment of a dream, a rare synthesis of paycheck and mission. Running a hip black magazine allowed him to reach readers as he saw fit, without having to explain why it was important to put Erykah Badu on the cover.

Stodghill may not have to worry about covers for a while. On November 26, the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving 70 people out of work. Stodghill is out $194,000 in severance pay, but he still sounds like a believer.

"You name the list of black editors in chief and you'll see it's a short one," says Stodghill, who had joined Vanguarde CEO Keith Clinkscales in trumpeting the gospel of urban media. "I thought that Keith was creating important books in that space. He was also creating important opportunities for black editors, writers, photographers."

The magazine world runs as much on exclusivity as it does on paper and ink. Vanguarde wanted to prove that an urban-read black house could run with the midtown big boys. It was a noble mission. But it proved futile. Two days before Thanksgiving, management called the staff together and told them Vanguarde was filing for Chapter 11.

In court papers, Vanguarde declared $11 million in assets and over $16 million in liabilities. The death of Vanguarde and the three magazines it published—Savoy, Honey, and Heart and Soul—was in many aspects no different from the deaths of other titles that have lately gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Clinkscales believes the four-year-old company simply fell victim to the general downturn in the industry, and thus never got the full five years it usually takes to turn a profit. "Essentially, we ran out of runway," he says. "The thing about it is that we had just great people who worked there. They did a good job. We just could not get to the point we needed to quick enough."

But in other ways the failure of Vanguarde is different, because the company's mandate was so grand. Clinkscales was attempting to create thoroughly modern African American magazines that would surpass the stodginess of older black books like Ebony and Jet. With a base of over 1.1 million readers, Vanguarde sold its employees on that mandate, and they forged a tight bond that extended beyond business.

Vanguarde's bankruptcy didn't exactly roil the larger media community. Company editors weren't regulars at Michael's, and Vanguarde never really penetrated the glitzy world of major magazines. That world remains predominantly white, and though newspapers long ago saw the need to reflect the spectrum of the country, magazines—almost as a business model—function like a country club. Vanguarde offered a parallel universe, where up was down and white was black, but it fed employees to bigger magazines like Jane and Teen People. With its glitz and cache, Vanguarde was Harlem—even if its offices were some 100 blocks from 125th.

While Vanguarde as a concept was innovative, its products weren't. The publications felt young and cool, but none made the leap from good idea to great magazine. In a better market, that might have happened with time; former staffers insist the magazines were improving. But in a slumping economy, a black indie like Vanguarde had its work cut out.

Vanguarde was founded in 1999, when the boom still felt eternal. New York was alive with Internet start-ups, and every week it seemed a new magazine was diving into the rivers of ad revenue. "1998 witnessed the birth of more magazines than any other year," says Samir Husni, who heads the magazine service journalism program at the University of Mississippi. "We moved into 1999 and 2000 like the sky was the limit."

The prosperity trickled down into niche markets. Suddenly, the climate for urban media was booming. "It felt flush with possibility and potential," says Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, who ran The Source and before coming to Vanguarde as Savoy's executive editor in September. "On a practical level, it was just flush with capital. It's the only time in recent memory when you had several distinct urban-media entities. No one had a sense that the market crash was just months away."

Emblematic of those freewheeling days was the incomparable Clinkscales, a publishing wunderkind who at 29 co-founded Vibe. "I thought he was one of smartest, most eloquent publishers I'd met in a long time," says Husni. "He had a good head on his shoulders."

Articulate and charming, Clinkscales whirled through the late '90s talking big but dealing bigger. At 35, after cashing out from Vibe, Clinkscales struck a bargain with investors to help found Vanguarde, which initially published a radio trade magazine, Impact. Within a year, Clinkscales acquired Emerge, BET Weekend, and Heart and Soul from BET, one of Vanguarde's investors, and Honey from Harris Publications. Vanguarde quickly shut down Emerge, with the hopes of restarting it as a black Vanity Fair. It would eventually become Savoy.

"People were quite excited to see what Keith and this crew would do next," says Hinds. "Vanguarde did have a great deal of fanfare and buzz. They had that illusive quality that we like to call heat." But the heat Vanguarde generated left many in the black media community feeling burned.

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