Historic Former Publisher Of Ebony And Jet Magazines Files For Bankruptcy

Apr 10, 2019
Originally published on April 10, 2019 8:02 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is all over for Johnson Publishing Company. For more than seven decades, the iconic black company, the former owner of Ebony and Jet magazines, was at the forefront of African-American culture. The company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy late yesterday, and it plans to sell all its assets. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There is, perhaps, no better example of Johnson Publishing Company's disappearing act than here on Chicago's Michigan Avenue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

CORLEY: I'm standing in front of the company's former headquarters. Once a luxurious monument to black business success and the first building in the city designed by a black architect, it's now an apartment building.

CHARLES WHITAKER: Oh, my.

CORLEY: Northwestern University journalism professor Charles Whitaker worked at Johnson Publishing for a decade at Ebony magazine. He says it's just sad to pass by the building and see leasing signs.

WHITAKER: Seeing this monument that John Johnson built that was such a source of pride to black America - to see that pass is - does, you know, put a lump in your throat.

CORLEY: The late John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice, founded Johnson Publishing in the early 1940s to showcase the achievements of black Americans. The historic photos and coverage of the 1955 lynching of Chicagoan Emmett Till helped spark the country's civil rights movement.

Lynn Norment, a former Ebony managing editor, says she grew up with the magazines, like so many other African-Americans. They were always on the coffee table at her home.

LYNN NORMENT: It was used as a resource for homework, for school, but also as a way to let me know, growing up in a small town in Tennessee, that there's a bigger world out here.

CORLEY: Circulation and ad revenue for the flagship magazines plummeted, though, over the years. And in 2011, Johnson Publishing took a crucial step, selling an equity stake to banker JPMorgan Chase. It sold Ebony and Jet to a pair of African-American venture capitalists in 2016. And a few years ago, the company tried relaunching its Fashion Fair cosmetics line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAWLESS")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You wake up flawless, post up flawless.

CORLEY: The upbeat commercial featured Beyonce's "Flawless" song and shots of lipsticks and other cosmetics. People commenting online said they love the products, but they never seem to be in stock. In its bankruptcy statement, Johnson Publishing blamed e-commerce competition in part and said it couldn't get alternative financing.

Northwestern's Charles Whitaker says there had long been signs of Johnson's demise.

WHITAKER: It just had not become a 21st century company. It was a company that was still operating on kind of the mid-century business model on which it was founded.

CORLEY: Johnson Publishing will try to sell the assets that remain, the Fashion Fair cosmetics line and an extensive photo archive chronicling the life of black America from the mid-20th century on. Former editor Lynn Norment calls it a treasure trove.

NORMENT: Mr. Johnson would not be happy. He would not be happy. He was a very proud man.

CORLEY: In its statement, the company says the impact Johnson Publishing has had on society cannot be overstated, and the decision to fold was not easy. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.