By Alan Prendergast
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There are many types of niche magazines that might seem to have a shot at thriving in the Denver marketplace -- ones focusing on, say, Broncos worship, sport utility vehicles or constructing a wardrobe exclusively by shopping at Eddie Bauer. Few observers would have expected, though, that a glossy African-American business mag would find an audience in a place known for being home to relatively few African-Americans. And yet somehow, someway, Denver's In the Black recently marked its second anniversary -- and odds are good that it will celebrate more of them in the future.
The quarterly publication's achievements thus far shouldn't be overstated. In the Black remains a fairly modest operation: Its circulation is currently 10,000 per issue, and the entire undertaking is run from a single Five Points office. But according to publisher Ellsworth Grant, the periodical has nearly 1,000 subscribers scattered across the U.S. and distribution via the Anderson News Company that reaches far beyond Colorado.
"We're in stores all over the country now," notes Frances Grant, In the Black's co-publisher (but not, as most folks assume, Ellsworth's wife; they're related by neither marriage nor blood). "We're in seven or eight Barnes & Nobles in Atlanta alone."
"And we sell out every issue," Ellsworth interjects, revealing that In the Black's pick-up rate at newsstands is approximately 95 percent, "which is just amazing to us."
Such success in far-flung locales isn't entirely incomprehensible. Although most of its articles spotlight Coloradans, the magazine seldom mentions the state on its cover. Just as important, In the Black looks mighty professional, with eye-catching graphics and quality photography. And because there are few publications like it out there (the best known is New York's Black Enterprise), In the Black is blessed with a reasonably open playing field and a potential readership that's growing at a steady clip, even in Denver.
Admittedly, Ellsworth didn't realize this until fairly recently. A native of the Bahamas, (which helps explain why each issue of In the Black this year has included a travel feature about the islands), he moved to Denver in 1996. While working for MCI, he became associated with the local branch of the National Black MBA Association and was soon put in charge of the group's newsletter. The response he received from the latter convinced him that local African-Americans were ready for a business magazine. But when Ellsworth pitched his scheme to Frances, whom he'd met shortly after his arrival, she was underwhelmed. Having lived in the area for years, she'd watched several previous African-American publications, including Odyssey West, sink like the Lusitania. "We certainly had a lot of discussions about, 'Do we have the population to support this?'" she says.
Ellsworth got a similar response after bouncing the notion off some community leaders. "The feedback was not positive," he concedes. "But that just made it a challenge. I thought, why not?"
As it turns out, there were plenty of reasons -- but the duo avoided many of them by lining up support from US West, Coors and other major corporations, many of which have subsequently used the magazine as recruiting tools to convince African-Americans from outside the region that they won't be completely alone if they relocate here. They also secured the assistance and advice of 5280's Dan Brogan, whose staff put together the first couple of issues.
Frances and Ellsworth have worked hard to build a credible African-American writing staff, gaining contri-butions from commentator Dani Newsum and onetime KDKO sports director Jon Bowman, among others. But they haven't instituted a color line, as demonstrated by their hiring of a Caucasian editor, Nancy Clark.
According to Clark, whose resumé includes stints at a gaggle of defunct publications, including Denver magazine, "They're trying to bring in the best people, period, and I think it shows. The magazine is really maturing."
Nonetheless, the tone of In the Black remains rather homogeneous; most articles are relentlessly positive. In the Fall 1999 offering, a back-page tribute to the late Colorado Secretary of State Vikki Buckley doesn't so much as mention that she was in hot water more often during her political career than the average packet of Ramen noodles. And the Summer 2000 copy (the most recent) is built around profiles (of an IBM administrator, heavy-hitters in the Denver sports business, and so on) that glow like Chernobyl from beginning to end. Granted, several smaller pieces touch on other issues, but they generally steer clear of anything that even hints at controversy. The glass isn't just half full; it's overflowing.
Ellsworth acknowledges that the magazine doesn't have much of an edge at present. "We'd definitely like to do more in-depth kinds of stories," he says.
At the same time, however, Frances believes that In the Black owes much of its popularity to its all-inclusive sunniness. "We see the magazine as a way of creating a community for African-Americans. It's a way of bringing people together."
"And it's also a way of creating role models," Ellsworth goes on. "It's so important to give readers a chance to say, 'This person did it -- and I can, too.'"
He hopes his personal experiences will provide similar inspiration. Right now he envisions In the Black doubling its circulation in the next year, and if the magazine eventually finds a way to balance its local character with national concerns (as well as branching out to include features on other parts of the minority workforce), he sees no reason why things should stop there.