The Impact Of Johnson Publishing On Black Media Shouldn’t Be Forgotten

The end of Johnson Publishing is a sad day for the culture.

Johnson Publishing was once the preeminent publisher of African-American cultural content in the nation. Today we mourn the death of an iconic imprint that was responsible for bringing us Jet, Ebony, and much more.

Both of these publications were pivotal in producing coverage of the Jim Crow System, and the Civil Rights struggles to overturn it late on, from the hottest new black celebrities to insight into some of the most prominent writers of the day.

On Tuesday, it was reported that Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7, according to court records.
The unraveling began in 2016 when the publishing house sold off Ebony and Jet to the Clear View Group, an equity group out of Texas.

So, the caveat is that Ebony and Jet will be unaffected by this turn of events.

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company said in a press release announcing the move. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

Johnson Publishing was founded in 1942 by the late John H. Johnson on a $500 loan and made it into one of the country’s most successful African-American-owned corporations. The company also donated millions to African American and civil rights causes.

Both Ebony, founded in 1945 and Jet, founded in 1951, portrayed black life as metropolitan, forward-looking, fruitful and fashionable, which was in complete contrast to the grotesque stereotypes that dominated mainstream media interpretations.

Though this is indeed a mournful moment for all who came up on the glossy pages of these one-time staples of black culture, the inevitable demise of Johnson Publishing was forecast three years ago when the iconic company sold off its two signature imprints, Jet and Ebony magazine.

From that time until now, it was hoped by many that there would be some sort of last minute reprieve for a brand name that Generation X, and all prior generations that witnessed it, will recall with fondness. But perhaps this is indicative of a time and mindset that may appear unfamiliar or irrelevant to Millineals and Generation Z alike.

As times change, so too must modern publications evolve to meet the changing times.

To me, most of the black magazines we once considered to be as close to a black institution as you could get, Jet, Ebony, Essence and others, failed to evolve fast enough to take advantage of the digital age while the iron was hot at the turn of the century.

In their places arose many much smaller black websites, bloggers and influencers that nibbled away at the audience and clout of these once infallible black brands. The World Star Hip Hops of the world,  The Root, The Grio, EURweb, Hello Beautiful, and a plethora of other sites swarmed their audience like mosquitoes on a lone cow left out to pasture.

The last print issue of Jet magazine was published in 2014.

Three years later, Ebony magazine fired a third of its staff and moved editorial to Los Angeles.

Lest we forget that #EbonyOwes debacle in which Ebony was sued for $80,000 for failing to pay nearly 50 freelancers for published works over a two year span.

Once upon a time, the Johnson Publishing Building stood as a monument to black entrepreneurship, black influence and, dare I say, black power on Chicago’s South Michigan Ave.

Johnson’s goal was to present a dignified world view of African-Americans that would inspire younger generations to follow suit and he did that for as long as he was alive.

It was the first building in Chicago, that we know of, that was designed by a black architect and owned by a black businessman. It was an 11-story homage to black excellence, with black businessman and celebrities regularly visiting.

Today that building has been broken up into apartments.

Also, Johnson Publishing once had a hair care division, owned radio stations and then there was the Ebony Fashion Fair Show that displayed black girl magic long before the term caught on.

According to Crain’s Business-Chicago, the decline into the obscurity of Johnson Publishing began more than ten years ago after founder John H. Johnson died at the age of 87.

As recently as March 12, Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of the founder, commented that she believed Johnson Publishing would regain its footing despite having just sold off the U.K. division of Fashion Fair, the cosmetics company founded by Chicago-based Johnson Publishing.

Whether that was hopeful optimism or a patronizing dismissal, the fact remains that, 14 years after his death, the greatness that was started by John H. Johnson is at risk of being lost to time.

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