Ames, Wilmer c. 1950–1993
Wilmer Ames c. 1950–1993
Magazine founder, editor
It all began with the tiny seed of an idea. In 1984, Wilmer Ames, then a reporter for Time magazine, drafted his one-paragraph proposal for a news-oriented magazine that would address issues from an African American perspective. Ames then developed his idea further, and that one-paragraph seed soon sprouted into a five-page proposal. Determined to bring his project to fruition, Ames studied demographics and searched for financial backers. After five years of hard work and dedication, Emerge arrived at newsstands and was immediately greeted with critical praise. Emerge soon became a leading African American publication. That tiny seed is now one of the tallest trees in the forest.
Ames was born in Nassawadox, Virginia to Wilmer and Gertrude Ames, but when he was seven the family moved to Crosswicks, New Jersey. He told the New York Times that, as the first black family in his new neighborhood, he experienced racism for the first time. One of the first of Ames’s many interests was television. In an interview, he told Sports Illustrated that he loved watching it. “I always watched television,” he said. “My earliest memories are of staying up with the lights off, watching old movies….”
Ames knew by the age of 12 that he wanted to turn one of his interests—writing—into a career. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, then went on to Columbia to earn his master’s in journalism. After deciding he needed a more secure profession than freelance writing, he studied medicine at Rutgers University for two years, but went back to journalism when he realized medicine was not for him. He filled the next years with writing and editing jobs at the Equitable Assurance Company, New York City Health Services Administration, Columbia Press Encyclopedia, and Broad Jump, an educational organization.
Ames began his ten-year stay with Time, Inc. in 1976 as a temporary receptionist for Sports Illustrated. One day Sports Illustrated assistant managing editor stopped and chatted with Ames. It turned out he had been reading Ames’ writing clips and Ames realized, after he was hired as a junior reporter, that the chat had actually been an interview.
Ames’s vast range of interests assisted him in a writing career that covered topics as different as laser eye surgery and Angie Dickinson. His early childhood interest in television helped him with his regular TV/radio columns for Sports Illustrated. He owned a 19-foot sailboat, which made him a natural as the magazines’s sailing reporter. The two years he spent in medical school gave him insight into stories he wrote for Sports Illustrated about the use of steroids by bodybuilders and brain injuries in boxing—he also subjected himself to the same series of neuropsychological tests that boxers did. As a freelance writer in the early seventies, his love of cooking paid off when a daily food columnist left town for a month without providing a recipe a day for a women’s magazine.
At a Glance…
Born c. 1950, in Nassawadox, VA to Wilmer and Gertrude Ames; died February 16, 1993, in New York City, NY. Education: B.A., Lincoln University, Pennsylvania 1970; M.S.,Columbia University; studied medicine, Rutgers University, 1974-76.
Career: Writer, editor, Equitable Assurance Company, New York City Health Services Administration, Columbia Press Encyclopedia, and Broad Jump, early-to-mid-seventies. Reporter, writer, Sports Illustrated, 1976-; Time, -1986. Free-lance writer, People, CQ, New York. Founder, editor-in-chief, Emerge, 1986-92.
Ames and her secretary cooked and tested for three days straight to put together the month’s worth of recipes. His passion for fitness paid of when he co-wrote, with martial arts star Chuck Norris, Toughen Up: The Chuck Norris Fitness System. He also freelanced for People, GQ, New York, and others.
In 1984, Ames saw a memo circulated by Time Inc.’s head executives soliciting ideas for new magazines from the staff. In a matter of days, Ames, then working as a reporter for Time magazine, had written his one-paragraph proposal for an upscale, news-oriented magazine for African Americans. When Time, Inc. showed interest, it was up to Ames to finish the sale. Although he knew nothing about magazine publishing, he immersed himself in facts and figures—including numbers he’d collected from United States Census reports—to show Time that the market for his idea was out there. “Overnight, I became an expert on population and demographic trends,” he told Folio.
Aside from knowing the facts and figures, Ames knew from personal experience that his magazine idea had a market. He defined it in terms of himself and his friends—middle-income blacks looking for a magazine that represented news and issues from a black perspective, and did so thoughtfully. Ames felt that Ebony and other general-interest black publications did not address those concerns. He told Folio, “It was obvious to me that there was a void that needed to be filled.”
Ames expanded on his one-paragraph idea, fleshing it out into a five-page proposal for a magazine to be called Emerge, with the subtitle, “Our voice in today’s world.” In the business plan, Ames wrote, “Emerge will position itself as a newsmonthly. A magazine that will cover the news of the month relevant to the black community from a human interest, more sensitive, yet investigative approach than any other black-oriented magazine.”
The proposal stayed in Time, Inc.’s development department—which suffered a number of changes during the time—until 1986, when, at the suggestion of Time, Inc.’s group publisher, Ames took a leave of absence from his job to put together a business plan and prototype for his idea. In addition to finding the magazine’s audience, Ames also had to find capital for his venture. Time, Inc. may have been willing to invest more than the 20 percent it did, but Ames was determined that his magazine be owned primarily by minorities. He struggled through 1987, trying to build a roster of concrete backers. Finally, in early 1988, he had commitments from enough minority sources to proceed with the project.
Ames seemed to have all of his bases covered as the newly hired staff worked to finish the first issue of Emerge in August of 1988. Time, Inc. had received an astonishing response rate from an Emerge direct-mail test it ran. Then one of the investors could not come up with its share of the money. Ames was forced to lay off his staff without the first issue even going to press. After another year’s work, pounding the pavement, looking for investors, Ames had raised five million dollars from investors that included the Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable network, among others. Ames hired back most of his staff, leased the 6,265 square-foot top floor at 599 Broadway, in lower Manhattan, and the first issue hit the stands in October of 1989.
Within a year, circulation had risen to 150,000, with the median income of the Emerge reader at $60,000—an attractive demographic to advertisers. The magazine carried double the number of advertising pages it held in the first issues. Critics noted that it took the staff a while to clearly define the magazine’s look, but once it did, Emerges’s signature cover shot was a very tight close-up photograph of the subject’s face. One competitor mentioned that the magazine was having a tough time finding itself though, featuring cover stories that ranged from celebrity pieces to hard news. Ames’s goal, he said in an interview with Folio magazine, was for every issue “to have at least one story that everybody’s talking about.”
Emerge aimed to take on issues that set it apart from its competitors. Controversial stories such as gun control from a black perspective and a candid interview with Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan, drew attention to the magazine. Village Voice writer Playthell Benjamin credits Ames for bringing a “hard-edged reportorial style” with him from his years at Time. The Detroit News called Emerge “perhaps the most important African American publication in the nation.” After several successful years, Ames resigned as editor in September 1992. On February 16, 1993, at the age of 43, Ames died of a heart attack.
In 1999, Emerge published a story about its own history and tribulations. The magazine quoted Ames as saying that on his way to work one day midway into his first year of publishing, “suddenly for the first time in a long while, I felt really happy. I realized that we were going to make it. It was happening.” After he died, Ames’ peers honored his spirit of journalism and commitment to diversity. Robert Johnson, chairman and CEO of BET told Folio, “I think Wilmer was a visionary, pioneer, and an entrepreneur who had a dream and wouldn’t let it go.”
Toughen Up: The Chuck Norris Fitness System (with Chuck Norris), Bantam Books, 1983.
Emerge, October 31, 1999, p. 36.
Folio, December 1, 1990, p. 35; April 1, 1993, p. 14.
New York Times, June 8, 1988, p. D21; February 27, 1993, p. 27.
Sports Illustrated, June 6, 1983, p. 4.
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