ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Ebony Magazine has seen a hashtag with its name trending on social media this summer. The hashtag is #EbonyOwes, as in it owes money to freelance writers. The legendary publication founded by and for black Americans has had a tough couple of years. It has dealt with dwindling subscriptions and the general downturn in the magazine industry. Its parent company has sold the magazine and its landmark Chicago building. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team has this report about writers who contributed to Ebony and are waiting for their paycheck.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Los Angeles writer Liz Dwyer wrote three articles for Ebony for its February issue, which looked at the future of black Americans under new president Donald Trump. She was thrilled to do it.
LIZ DWYER: Ebony is one of those historical publications that you grew up, you know, seeing on your grandma's coffee table or your parents' coffee table. And it was for me growing up one of the only places that I regularly saw myself and my parents reflected in it.
BATES: Dwyer so no money for months, then finally got a check this week - 1 of 3 writers who were paid in full. She says it's especially galling that this treatment came from a magazine she revered as a cultural icon. Adrienne Samuels Gibbs agrees.
ADRIENNE SAMUELS GIBBS: It's really, really, really tough to say anything about a black company when you are going to be interpreted as criticizing it.
BATES: Gibbs is a Chicago-based writer and journalist. She left a Boston newspaper to return to her hometown to work for Ebony first as a staffer, then as a freelancer. Gibbs oversaw the popular commemorative Obama cover issue that ran last December. She says she did it for the love of the magazine, but she didn't plan to do it for free or for the partial payment she's just received. And she dismisses people who say the writers' demands for payment are embarrassing a beloved piece of black culture.
GIBBS: No one is trying to tear down a black institution that means the world to black America and to the larger citizenship of the diaspora. But you still have to pay what you owe.
BATES: A year ago, an African-American private equity firm, ClearView Group, or CVG, bought Ebony. This week after a prominent social media campaign called #EbonyOwes and pressure from the National Writers Union, checks for partial payment have begun to slowly arrive in some writers' mailboxes. CVG's principals did not return NPR's calls for comment. In February, they hosted a lavish Super Bowl party and this month held a big blowout for the BET Awards. If there's money for those things, the writers ask, why not them? So after months of being stonewalled, a group of unpaid writers jointly went to the National Writers Union for help.
LARRY GOLDBETTER: And I can tell you, you know, we have some experience with this. And they're not going to get away with it.
BATES: Larry Goldbetter, president of the union, says there's been an industry-wide epidemic of nonpayment to writers for the past few years. So unfortunately, the situation of Ebony's contributors is not unique.
GOLDBETTER: What's unique here is that these 30 writers at Ebony have taken a stand, and they stood together.
BATES: Liz Dwyer says even though she finally got a check, she's going to continue to press for Ebony to pay all its writers. Freelancers need to receive what they're due, she says, even if they're not hurting financially.
DWYER: Even if all they wanted to do was set that money on fire, they did that work. It's owed to them.
BATES: Last week, the Writers Union announced it will sue Ebony and CVG to recover the entire amount still owed the Ebony writers. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILKY CHANCE SONG, "FEATHERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.