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 360hip-hop.com 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.
When the company shut down Emerge, its longtime editor, George Curry, was vocal in his criticism. Emerge was the only magazine of its kind, offering serious independent black reporting and political analysis. It consistently lost money, and its circulation of 170,000 was small compared to what Vanguarde envisioned for its lifestyle magazines. But during its 10 years, Emerge won more than 40 awards, and Curry became the first black head of the American Society of Magazine Editors.
“We were just at the point where we were about to break even,” Curry says. “Look at how long it took The New Yorker to break even, and they won every award in the book.”
Vanguarde’s acquisition of Honey was equally acrimonious. The idea for Honey came from Kierna Mayo and Joicelyn Dingle, who wanted to make a younger, hipper, more multicultural Essence. The two shopped the concept to several publishers, including Clinkscales, while he was still at Vibe. “We very eagerly had conversations with Keith about the publication,” says Mayo. “He was very excited and we were very excited because he was part of the culture. He held on to that plan for many months. He never said yes or no, but he did have concerns about how we survive against Essence.”
Hungry to get a title on the stands, Mayo and Dingle finally went with Harris Publications, even though Harris offered no ownership stake. They were hoping to find investors who could help them buy the title back, and were shocked to learn Vanguarde had beaten them to the punch. Mayo and Dingle say they’d stayed in touch with Clinkscales but he never mentioned his intent to buy Honey—until the deal was virtually done.
“Keith takes us out to dinner and says, ‘Sorry you had to find out about it this way,’ ” says Mayo. They say that Clinkscales hinted they could get an ownership stake and remain as editors, but that in the end he offered “probationary” positions, minus the titles they’d had under Harris and without ownership. They thought they were being cleverly pushed out. Though they’d created Honey, they never really owned it and thus had to take Clinkscales’s offer or leave. They elected to leave.
“They were offered positions right from the beginning,” says Clinkscales, disputing the notion that he pushed Mayo and Dingle out. “But they declined them. They wanted more. I think all of those things were possible. But at the beginning of the venture, you can’t make promises that you might not be able to fulfill.”
Despite having rubbed some folks the wrong way, after acquiring Honey, Vanguarde had positioned itself as the hippest black kid on the publishing block. The company had grown quickly, but the industry as a whole soon began to hemorrhage. Vanguarde started bleeding too.
Vanguarde’s defenders note that the company, while unique in its mission, should not be seen as unique in its failure. The magazine business is always rough, but the past three years have seen the demise of flashy titles like Talk and Mademoiselle. In between are other titles—Gear and Radar for instance—searching for funds.
Stodghill, the Savoy editor, says it’d be wrong to conclude anything more about Vanguarde than can be concluded about any other magazine that failed recently. “Keith should be thrown in the same group of editors—the Maer Roshans, the Tina Browns—who couldn’t weather the market forces,” he says.
Yet certainly, specific missteps helped prevent Vanguarde from reaching its potential. For his part, Clinkscales points to the fact that the company grew a lot faster than expected, which brought more chances to fail. “I got a lot of magazines quickly when I purchased the BET magazines,” says Clinkscales. “That increased the execution risk, and we were also running some Internet sites. If I could do it again, I would try to minimize the execution risk. Not just less titles but less of everything.”
Because Vanguarde blew up so quickly, its three publications never really established clear voices. Honey attempted to go beyond its core audience and address urban women in general, and ultimately it proved to be the most successful of the three. Heart and Soul was attempting to move beyond its original designation as a black women’s health magazine, into the lifestyle field.
Then there was Savoy, a magazine that seemed a natural flagship. The idea was to capture the spirit of the new class of affluent, post-civil-rights African Americans in a way Ebony had failed to do.
But Savoy struggled to establish a distinct voice beyond the notion of addressing upscale black America. Hinds says part of his mandate in coming to Vanguarde was to sharpen the magazine’s focus. “As a reader, I think Savoy never had a clear sense of what it was,” says Hinds. “I have a friend who called it the old man in the club—you know, a little past its prime but strenuously trying to be hip. I wanted to take away that element of the magazine trying to be cool, and get it back to pure sexiness.”
Even with the bankruptcy in process, Clinkscales isn’t willing to concede defeat. On December 18, Vanguarde announced that Triax financial advisers would be assisting the company in its bid to resurrect itself. “The advertising is there, the marketing is there, and there are a lot of investors out there who understand that there’s a readership,” Clinkscales says. “But anytime something like this happens, you have to find the lessons.”