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Freelancers sue Ebony magazine, claiming $70,000 in unpaid work

A group of 38 Ebony freelancers filed a lawsuit against the magazine Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming they are collectively owed more than $70,000 for their work.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Ebony Media and its owner, Texas-based private equity firm CVG Group, include writers, photographers, videographers and graphic designers, all of whom are represented by the National Writers Union.

The freelancers were "regular contributors" to both Ebony and co-owned Jet magazine, but the publisher "failed and/or refused" to pay the amounts due for their work, according to the lawsuit.

"They had contracts to provide content or services, did that, and weren't paid," said Joshua File, a Chicago-based attorney representing the freelancers.

File said the freelancers each are owed anywhere from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars, with the final tally to be determined in court.

A monthly African-American lifestyle magazine launched in Chicago in 1945, Ebony has struggled with everything from delayed subscription deliveries to the unpaid freelance writers since Johnson Publishing sold it last year to CVG Group for an undisclosed price.

Ebony announced in May it was cutting nearly a third of its staff and consolidating editorial operations with sister publication Jet in Los Angeles.

Michael Gibson, co-founder and chairman of CVG Group, in June blamed the unpaid freelance invoices on an accounting error, and he pledged to pay everyone "100 percent" of what was owed by the first week in July.

Gibson did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is the culmination of a monthslong public feud between the freelancers and CVG Group, which has played out in traditional and social media.

The National Writers Union became active on behalf of Ebony freelancers after #EbonyOwes began trending on Twitter this spring, bringing the payment backlog to light.

"Here's about 40 freelancers that don't have collective bargaining but are standing together as a union, and we're going to get them paid," said Larry Goldbetter, president of the New York-based union, which is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The freelancers aren't the only ones seeking overdue payment from Ebony.

Houston-based events production company GVPmedia has been trying to get Ebony to pay a partially disputed balance for a Super Bowl party the magazine threw in February. The glitzy event, held at the Ballroom at Bayou Place in Houston, featured music, sports and entertainment stars, as well as Gibson, Ebony Media CEO Linda Johnson Rice and other top Ebony brass.

GVP provided lighting, sound and a giant video wall, added at the last minute at the request of Ebony, said Gabby Schmees, the company's director of business operations. She said Ebony paid $50,000 upfront for the lighting and sound but balked at the $13,000 bill for the video wall.

Reached by email on Wednesday, Schmees said the company is still waiting on payment but is "trying to recover" from Hurricane Harvey before determining its next steps.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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