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New Essence owner won’t make editorial decisions, he says

Essence magazine's December / January 2018 cover, featuring

Essence magazine's December / January 2018 cover, featuring Maxine Moore Waters, who serves as the U.S. representative for California's 43rd congressional district. Credit: Essence Magazine

Richelieu Dennis, the Long Island entrepreneur who founded and sold Sundial Brands, said he will not be making editorial decisions for Essence, the iconic magazine focused on black women that his new company is buying from Time Inc.

Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks and her team will continue to lead the 48-year-old publication, which will focus on digital, video and content creation internationally, Dennis said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Dennis, whose Essence Ventures LLC announced Wednesday that it was buying Manhattan-based Essence Communications. The move will put the company under 100 percent black ownership again for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Ebanks said she felt “this sense of just pride, the sense, you know, we are now truly who we say we are . . . We serve black women. We are black owned.”

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Dennis founded Sundial, an Amityville-based maker of hair-care and skin-care brands such as SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage, in 1991. In November, personal-care products maker Unilever announced it was buying Sundial. Dennis remained as Sundial’s CEO and executive chairman.

He is venturing into magazine publishing as the industry struggles with weak subscription rates, declining ad spending and competition from websites that provide free content.

Essence magazine’s circulation fell by 3 percent, to 1.06 million, between 2007 and 2017, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Dennis said he wasn’t daunted by the prospect of taking on Essence, in part because it is a “platform brand” closely tied to the black community.

“So we don’t look at it as, ‘Hey, we’re going into the publishing business.’ We’re looking at it as we’re going deeper into the serving-women-of-color business,” Dennis said.

Time bought a 49 percent stake in Essence Communications in 2000, and then bought the rest of the company in 2005.

Afterward, some readers complained in social media and elsewhere that the magazine strayed from its mission of being a valuable resource for black women.

Essence’s leadership was aware of those sentiments, Ebanks said.

“The Essence team never wavered in their commitment to black women,” she said. “And Time Inc. never interfered in editorial, in that relationship, that Essence had with the audience.”

Essence has 60 employees, as well as some freelance contributors and consultants, she said.

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