No matter what George Curry accomplishes during the remainder of his journalistic career, he will be remembered for one thing: he was the editor who slapped a portrait of Clarence Thomas wearing an Aunt Jemima-style handkerchief on a 1993 cover of Emerge magazine. That shocking image outraged Thomas' supporters, of course, but it crystallized the disgust that many African Americans had begun to feel about the ultraconservative legal philosophy of the U.S. Supreme Court's only black member. It also put Emerge on the map. "It let people know there was nothing and no one we were afraid to take on," says Curry. "A lot of people in the black community say we shouldn't air our dirty laundry in public. I say, 'Give me your dirty laundry.' If Emerge, an African-American newsmagazine, can't critique black leaders, who can?"
That's the uncompromising voice that made Emerge the nation's best black newsmagazine for the past seven years. Ferociously militant. Deeply skeptical of white institutions and black leaders like Louis Farrakhan. Nearly devoid of humor. The kind of magazine that nearly always left you angrier at white people than you were before you read it. The problem? It came on way too strong for many of its intended readers, not to mention white advertisers.
Last week the magazine's new managers, New York City-based Vanguarde Media Inc., halted publication and fired most of the staff, including Curry. Despite the booming economy and the affluence of the black middle class, Emerge's circulation was stuck at 160,000, one-tenth the size of Ebony's. It had been losing $1 million a year. Says Roy Johnson, editorial director of Vanguarde, which in April became joint owner of Emerge in a complex deal with BET Holdings II Inc.: "From a business standpoint, suspending publication was an easy call. As a new company, we simply could not afford to carry a magazine that was trending downward like that."
Johnson, a former editor at Time Inc., where Emerge got its start a decade ago before being sold to BET, thinks Emerge failed because "it didn't strike the right chord with its readers." By that, he clearly means that Curry's bristling brand of journalism is no longer marketable to a black bourgeois audience that wants to be entertained, not browbeaten. The new, as yet unnamed, magazine that Vanguarde will bring out next year to take Emerge's place, says Johnson, will be "a black Vanity Fair. Our hope is to create an editorial product that is smart, provocative, stylish and inviting." It won't be a magazine that puts Farrakhan on the cover, much less Clarence Thomas in a do-rag.
So where does that leave Curry, who was sworn in as the first black president of the American Society of Magazine Editors only a few weeks before Emerge shut down? Trying to persuade investors to bankroll a new magazine that would follow in Emerge's footsteps. He maintains that Emerge could have doubled its circulation if it had been more aggressively promoted. "There's a black middle-class audience that's looking for news with an edge," insists Curry. "Our people still need a magazine like Emerge." Perhaps so, but will enough of them buy it?