Black Chicago icon heads west, but it may be the final blow to a storied legacy

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    By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

    Hollywood beckons for Ebony magazine. So long, Michigan Avenue. Hello, Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive.

    Los Angeles has lured another Black icon from Chicago. In 2011, Oprah left the West Loop for Tinsel Town for bigger dreams. Television personality Steve Harvey is moving his Chicago show to the City of Angels. Motown bolted for the West Coast decades ago. Now, the editorial team of Ebony and the digital Jet will be in Los Angeles, but Chicago and Black America aren’t dancing in the streets to celebrate the icon’s new address. What’s going on?

    It’s the latest chapter of a storied publication that for years has struggled in a declining print industry. After decades in Chicago, Ebony is hitting the road to the city of glitz, glamour and sunshine, soon to be the new home of another Black Chicago icon, only this one has been fighting to stay alive.

    JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY chairman and Ebony CEO Linda Johnson Rice smiles with Ebony’s owner, the CVG Group, which includes Chairman Michael Gibson and Vice Chairman Willard Jackson.

    Its founder, John H. Johnson, died in 2005. His wife, Eunice, died in 2010. Their daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, sold Ebony and Jet digital in 2016 to CVG Group, a Houston private equity firm.

    What many had hoped to be a new chapter for Ebony and Jet is now fading. The latest disappointment came May 5 when the CVG Group announced that Ebony is laying off about 10 of 35 employees, including editor-in-chief Kyra Kyles. The soul of the magazine, the editorial teams at Ebony and Jet digital, will be based out in Los Angeles under Jet digital editor Tracey Ferguson. Ebony has 1.2 million subscribers.

    Most of the laid-off employees were from the Chicago area, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Johnson Publishing’s CEO Desiree Rogers resigned and is expected to spend more time as head of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism bureau.

    “I have appreciated my time with the company and am proud of the work we have done here, guiding the sale of legendary assets and strengthening Fashion Fair with a new team,” Rogers said in the statement. “Now, is the perfect time to pursue other interests.”

    Johnson Rice will now be CEO and chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, which owns the Fashion Fair cosmetics line that is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Johnson Rice is the CEO of the CVG Group’s Ebony Media Group which runs Ebony.

    EBONY AND JET magazines have been produced from the Borg-Warner building on Michigan Avenue since Johnson Publishing Company sold its headquarters in 2010.

    While Ebony will relocate to Los Angeles, Johnson Rice will maintain an office in Chicago and remain CEO of Ebony. Since selling their headquarters in 2010, Johnson Publishing has operated out of the Borg-Warner building, 200 S. Michigan Avenue.

    The Crusader was unable to reach Johnson Rice for comment, but in a May 9 article in the Pittsburgh Courier, she denied reports that Ebony is leaving Chicago. According to the Courier, Ebony and Jet will have an “editorial staff in New York and Chicago.”

    “We will still have a big presence in Chicago because our sales and marketing team is there; our production is in Chicago. So, I want to be clear on that we’re not leaving Chicago,” Johnson Rice said.

    But some aren’t buying it.

    In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Gibson, co-founder and chairman of Ebony-owned CVG Group, said “Ebony Media will retain a downsized Chicago office after the magazine pulls up stakes for the West Coast.”

    On May 10, Crain’s has run several stories. One included the headline, “LOSING A LEGACY: As Johnson Publishing declines, a link to Chicago’s past as a media capital is broken.”

    Over the years to save Ebony, Johnson Rice sold its landmark headquarters, shuttered the print edition of Jet magazine and then sold its media empire to a small private firm with little or no experience in media or magazine publishing. All along, Johnson Publishing trumpeted these moves as a step forward, but to many professionals and former Ebony employees, they were all mistakes and disturbing signs of an empire in decline.

    Now, there are concerns that the latest move to relocate Ebony some 2,000 miles away from its birthplace will be the biggest mistake that may deliver the final blow for a publication that for decades was one of a few magazines that told the story of Black life and culture.

    These stories were told from Ebony’s headquarters in Chicago, where its founder, John H. Johnson and numerous other Black trailblazers established Chicago as the Black mecca with their rags-to-riches success stories.

    Ebony will primarily be based in Los Angeles—America’s entertainment capital.

    While it’s the nation’s second largest city, Los Angeles has only 381,000 Black residents to Chicago’s 889,540, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. And while other cities with large Black populations — Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York—are a road trip away, Los Angeles is a city that’s distant and does not have the rich Black history of Chicago and other cities impacted by the Great Migration.

    One thing is certain: Los Angeles is distant—geographically and perhaps culturally when it comes to Black achievement and people of color. Many are concerned that Ebony and Jet will become even more distant from their heritage and roots.

    Many iconic Black Chicago companies and personalities have moved to Los Angeles over the decades. In 1974, former radio personality, Don Cornelius, moved his “Soul Train” franchise to L.A. In 2011, Oprah packed her bags to start her OWN network and comedian Steve Harvey will begin filming his talk show in Los Angeles in the fall.

    All of these empires and pioneers were flourishing when they relocated to the West Coast. Questions remain about what factors other than entertainment can help the struggling Ebony brand succeed in Los Angeles.

    According to the popular Hollywood Reporter, the William Morris Endeavor (WME) talent agency has signed Ebony and Jet as clients. WME will aim to expand the magazine’s brand and capitalize on its archival content.

    There’s no guarantee that Hollywood glitz can revive Ebony. In 1972, Berry Gordy shocked Detroit and Black America when he moved his Motown empire to Los Angeles. The move left between 200-300 employees in Detroit out of work, most of whom could not transfer to Los Angeles, according to the Supremes’ Mary Wilson’s memoir, Supreme Faith.

    Gordy wanted to expand his empire to Hollywood and the big screen. Though Motown found success with Diana Ross’ “Lady Sing the Blues,” “Mahogany” and “The Wiz,” Motown’s quality of music declined and has never been the same.

    The label was sold numerous times to various recording companies, including Def Jam Music. Today, it’s owned by the Universal Music group, but the Motown today is still known and loved for its past rather than its present.

    Despite attempts to reinvent Ebony, the magazine has struggled with the same problem for years. Ebony’s subscribers complained of receiving issues six months late. Recently, Ebony’s freelance writers took to social media, venting their frustrations of not being paid for work that was published months ago. In spite of its challenges, in Chicago, it remained a symbol of Black pride.

    For now, Black Chicago is bemoaning the loss of a treasured homegrown icon that helped cement the city as the Black media capital. For a company that remained in Chicago for 70 years, the loss of Ebony may be painful. Some took to Facebook and other social media, to express their disappointment.

    “It’s such a big deal for Chicago,” said Lavon Nicole Pettis.

    “Linda Johnson Rice has been a complete failure over Ebony/Jet since she took over,” said Arlene Jones.

    “This is sad to see, but it is a reminder that businesses come and go,” said Chicagoan Fabian Elliott. “It is a reminder that we have to keep innovating as a community and creating more iconic businesses. We still have many more left to be created.”

    “Sadly, it was expected, but it’s still devastating,” said Ron Childs, a former associate editor of Ebony Man, in Crain’s Chicago Business. “It’s just the end of a legacy in Chicago’s history of African-American publishing.”

    “This is a sad blow for the African-American community,” said Kevin, a commenter on Crain’s Chicago Business. “This was a staple of the community and everywhere.”

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