Vibe magazine's recent takeover by the Wicks Group and subsequent installation of new CEO Eric Gertler and President Ari Horowitz have raised plenty of questions about the future of Vibe, an ASME-winning magazine that's gone through five editors-in-chief since 1993.
Gertler and Horowitz have experienced the bumpy road to taking over a magazine from its founding staff: Last year, they changed the locks on BlackBook's Prince Street offices to prevent founding editor Eric Schindler from entering. But the Vibe overhaul has been particularly contentious, and a source from inside the magazine said that staffing changes like the layoff of executive director of events and artist relations Karla Y. Radford, who has been with Vibe since its inception, amount to the magazine losing much of its institutional memory.
The first transition wave involved re-installing former editor-in-chief Danyel Smith who left the magazine in 1999, and replacing Mimi Valdés, who oversaw an 18% rise in circulation and an 8.1% rise in newsstand sales. More than twenty additional staffers have also been let go, including executive editor Shani Saxon-Parrish, managing editor Lori Yacovone, design director Florian Bachleda, associate music editor Rondell Conway and director of manufacturing Vince Bailey. Editors at large O.J. Lima, Vibe's former executive editor, and Bobbito Garcia, a well-known DJ whose column "Bobbito's Soundcheck" was one of the magazine's most popular columns, have also been laid off, while current President Kenard Gibbs, who has held his position since 2000, will also be stepping down. An insider source said that all fired or laid off staffers will receive a basic buyout under their contracts, including 2 weeks of severance pay for every year they worked for the magazine. Gertler declined to comment on any staff changes.
Initially, Gertler and Horowitz came in hailing the talents of the Vibe staff to the media and, according to our source, to the employees themselves. "They showed up talking a big game, 'we love the brand and we love the people here,' and the next day they fired a bunch of people," said our source.
As a result, the layoffs have left many riled. "If you don't understand going in to the magazine game that mass firings can happen, you didn't read the fine print and you're an idiot," says our source. "But there's a way to treat people and a way to be professional. They should have had a better plan and a better strategy." In particular, ETP's source said that Danyel Smith tried to change the cover of the most recent issue, leaving tempers flaring. "She had people scrambling for a new picture as it was on the way to the printers," said our source.
Questions have also arisen about the new management's ability to run such an expansive franchise, which includes a Vibe T-Mobile network, the Vibe music festival and the annual Vibe Awards. Current holdings of the Wicks Group, the private equity firm that purchased Vibe Media and installed Gertler and Horowitz as its principals, include Standard Publishing, a publisher of Christian books and magazines, and Wicks Educational Publishing, which covers high school and post-secondary school markets. BlackBook, the magazine currently overseen by Gertler and Horowitz, is a bi-monthly with a base rate of 150,000. Forty-percent of its total readership is located in either New York or Los Angeles, and the magazine is known for its placement in boutique hotels. Gertler's resume includes over fifteen years of experience in senior management, his titles including President of the media group that published U.S. News and World Report, Fast Company and The Atlantic Monthly. Said our source, "[Gertler and Horowitz] are now dealing with a property that eclipses anything they have. It would be like the Kansas City Royals buying the Yankees."
Gertler said that immediate plans for the magazine, which has a current paid circulation of 836,611, include expansion into additional media. "As a media company, you need to be a multimedia company, whereby you distribute your content on multiple platforms. Vibe...needs to continue to expand," said Gertler, who cited video on demand, radio programming and expanded web sites among the projects he intends to implement in the near future. Vibe's expansion into television programming has already begun with a Lions Gate-partnered comedy show entitled "White Boyz In The Hood." The show, which filmed one episode in January, began as a series of stand-up routines at a New York comedy club and is set to run for three seasons on Showtime.
Gertler denied recent rumors about the development of a reality show centered around Vibe staffers, saying, "I dont know where that comes from." But our source disagreed, saying that Gertler and Horowitz had in fact suggested the concept of a show based on "two white guys taking over Vibe." Said our source: "[Gertler and Horowitz] came in pitching the idea of a reality show about the new Vibe."
Any discussion of Vibe's future includes Vibe Vixen, a bi-monthly launched in spring of 2005 that was planned as the first women's magazine to combine trendsetting urban music and culture with beauty and fashion (earlier in 2005, Suede, a similarly-themed book launched by Essence, was shuttered after just four issues). Gertler said that Smith's new duties will include serving as editor-in-chief of Vibe's female counterpart, which was founded by Valdés and is currently produced entirely by Vibe staffers, with no full-time staff of its own. The magazine runs four issues a year, though Gertler said that the new management had discussed upping its frequency.
Gertler said that the response to Vibe Vixen from readers and, perhaps more importantly, advertisers has been overwhelmingly positive. "Right now there's really no magazine that speaks to the woman of color," said Gertler. "For women in the multicultural arena, Vibe Vixen has become the leader in its space." (Vibe's readership is approximately 50% women, so initial test issues were sent out to a strong roster of female readers.) Our source agreed that the magazine has left the gate strong, saying that recent issues, particularly the Spring 2006 issue featuring Kimora Lee Simmons on the cover, have been "selling like crazy" on newsstands.
Gertler did not resond to follow-up emails or phone calls requesting comment.
— With additional reporting by Rachel Sklar.