By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Sitting next to a lake at Oak Woods Cemetery in Woodlawn is a stunning million-dollar marble crypt that contains the remains of John H. Johnson, the founder of his namesake publishing empire that produces Ebony and Jet magazines.
It’s been 11 years since America’s first media mogul moved into his final resting place. On the well-manicured lawns of Oak Woods, some of Johnson’s neighbors are Olympic great Jesse Owens, Chicago’s first Black Mayor Harold Washington and other famous Blacks who ascended to the pinnacles of sports, politics and business.
For Johnson, his fame and fortune would come from the media industry.
With little money, he would become a household name from an iconic magazine that would make him a millionaire many, many times over. When he planted his 11-story headquarters on the city’s tony Michigan Avenue in 1972, Johnson established himself as a fearless Black entrepreneur who crashed one of corporate America’s most famous streets. He found a way to build the first Black-owned skyscraper in Chicago after a white owner wouldn’t sell him the land underneath.
Etched in gold leaf above the ornate doors of Johnson’s crypt is a quote that gives visitors a glimpse of a man who achieved wealth and prestige during a period where there were few opportunities for Blacks: “Failure is a word I don’t accept.”
A decade after Johnson’s death, the empire that for 71 years sat on millions of coffee tables with colorful, inspiring stories about Black life and culture is a shell of itself. Once a powerful symbol of Black pride and minority ownership, both Ebony and digital-only Jet are now owned by Clear View Group, a little-known investment firm in Austin, TX. For a company that refined the Black Press, many believe the sale is a sad ending that was years in the making. No longer family-owned, many believed Ebony would never be the same.
The word came on June 14 when Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers confirmed that the purchase was finalized at the end of May.
Rogers said Johnson Publishing would retain the Fashion Fair Cosmetics business—a Black venture founded by Eunice Johnson, John H. Johnson’s wife, who died in 2010. It was Eunice who came up with the name Ebony when her husband didn’t like the original name, Negro Digest, which was started in 1942. The new publishing entity, Ebony Media Operations, will also maintain the magazine’s Chicago headquarters and its New York editorial office.
Both sides declined to disclose the sale price of Ebony and Jet. However, some Ebony alumni believe Clear View Group bagged Ebony and Jet for a price that would have John H. Johnson rolling over in his grave.
The news angered many former Ebony employees, who will have a reunion in the Windy City this weekend.
Many believe the sale is another bad business decision that follows years of turnover and mismanagement at the two iconic magazines that lost their original purpose. Filled with fluff and light stories on beauty and fashion, sources say Ebony and Jet were stripped of their soul by top executives who lacked the vision and passion of John H. Johnson.
While Johnson Publishing Company’s top brass say the deal ensures the continuation of Ebony and Jet, many Blacks bemoan the end of two historic, family-owned publications that shaped and elevated American Black culture more than any publication, Black or white.
Stories and photos of Black Americans and celebrities were often left out of mainstream newspapers and magazines. Model and actress Diahann Carroll made her career debut in Ebony. Billy Dee Williams stopped by the office shortly after filming “Lady Sings the Blues,” with Diana Ross.
The announcement of the purchase was the first of several moves that ushered in a new chapter in Ebony and Jet’s future. Ebony’s current Editor-in-Chief Kierna Mayo jumped ship to take a position as senior vice president of content and brands at Interactive One.
Hours after the announcement, Columbia College Chicago announced that it was putting the iconic Johnson Publishing headquarters building up for sale. Six years ago, the school purchased the building at 820 S. Michigan from the Johnson family.
The deal with Clear View Group capped years of uncertainty and speculation of Ebony and Jet magazines. Both publications were hemorrhaging as they competed with Essence magazine, a younger Black female-oriented publication that has made big gains on its older rivals. That 46-year-old publication is owned by Time, Inc.
Still, many Black and mainstream publications, have been losing millions of dollars in advertising revenue to the Internet since the late 1990s. On June 23, 2014, Jet magazine—Ebony’s pocketbook-sized sister publication that had been around for 71 years—published its final print edition. Jet, the digital version still exists.
Both publications are now under new ownership, but with a deal shrouded in mystery, the future of Ebony and Jet remain uncertain. It’s been reported that Clear View Group is Black-owned, but a search for the owner Michael Gibson, turned up empty. The Crusader was unable to find any information or website on the Clear View Group.
There are also questions as to why a Black businessman buying Ebony and Jet would refrain from appearing in public to proudly announce the heroic rescue of two iconic magazines. What risks could there be for such a move?
Johnson Publishing did not return an email from the Crusader, but in a television interview with Roland Martin on “NewsOne Now,” Rogers remained tight-lipped about Ebony’s new owner. She defended the sale of the iconic magazine, describing it as “extremely important” for Ebony’s survival.
“What we feel we’ve done has been able to ensure the future of the published magazine, and at the same time, see additional investment in the brand—whether that be the digital platforms that are associated with the two magazines,” Rogers said during the interview.
Many blame the downfall and eventual sale of Ebony and Jet on Johnson Publishing Company. Over the years, both publications lost much of their appeal and value from poor business and editorial decisions. By the time Clear View Group wanted to buy Ebony and Jet, they were already on the clearance rack.
John H. Johnson died of heart failure on August 8. 2005. His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, took the helm of the family empire. After celebrities flocked to her father’s funeral at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, Rice vowed to continue her father’s legacy. But there were doubts as to whether Rice was capable of keeping the empire afloat in a print industry that was rapidly losing advertising dollars to Internet ventures.
After Johnson’s death, sources say top executives fired many veteran staff members on the editorial and print side. Hoping to expand Ebony’s appeal to a new generation of readers, younger professionals with impressive pedigrees were hired. Stories became glossier, yet readership at both Ebony and Jet remain stagnant.
Financial troubles would plague Ebony and Jet years after Johnson’s death. Sources say the end of the Johnson family-ownership really began when the 110,000 square foot building was sold to neighboring Columbia College Chicago for $8 million in 2010. Rogers, then Johnson’s new CEO, reportedly help negotiate the deal.
The move came after Rogers was forced out as White House Social Secretary after a couple crashed a state dinner on her watch. Johnson hired her longtime friend, who, at the time, had never worked in the publishing industry. Known for her cutting-edge fashions, Ebony somehow began to reflect Rogers’ strong flair for beauty products and fashion.
With the centerpiece of the Johnson media empire sold, many began to realize that the family-owned business that gave life to Black culture slowly began to die.
As part of that building sale, Columbia College Chicago agreed to keep the Ebony and Jet marquee at the top of the building. The school also agreed to keep John H. Johnson’s sprawling office the way it was when he died.
At the time of the sale, Johnson Publishing Company was in trouble. In 2009, Johnson secured a mortgage on its headquarters to pay a $12.7 million debt to its printer, R.R. Donnelly & Sons. That same year, Johnson Publishing was also slapped with $500,000 in liens from contractors who claim the company owed them for work.
As Columbia College Chicago sought to use the building to expand its growing library, the Johnson Publishing Company relocated to its new digs at 200 South Michigan, where it initially rented three floors for thousands of dollars a month. A chrome and glass covered-building that sits across from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Defender rented one floor for $25,000 a month before it moved to it current location at 4445 S. King Drive in 2009.
Two years after relocating to 200 South Michigan, Johnson Publishing Company gave up a third floor and attempted to sublet a second floor it rented.
One year after the sale, JP Morgan secured a stake in Johnson Publishing Company after making a reported investment in the tens of millions of dollars. The cash infusion renewed hope into a company that was struggling amid a brutal economic recession. Still, Johnson Publishing Company cut costs to stay afloat.
According to the Standard Media Index, Ebony’s revenue fell by 8 percent in 2013—a year the company generated $90 million in earnings. In 2014, the company’s profits were lower by 24 percent. Though circulation—the measuring point to determine advertising rates—was hovering at 1.25 million copies, the company’s problems were far from over.
In 2014, Johnson Publishing put its five-million image archive collection that included some of the most prized photos up for sale for $40 million. They include Ebony’s late photojournalist Monet Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter sitting at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968. No one has bought the collection to this day, but the move once again raised concerns about Ebony’s future.
By 2015, readers began seeing signs of trouble at Ebony. Once a monthly publication, Ebony would occasionally publish issues once every two months.
Sources say the financial problems bled into the editorial department, where there was little money to hire more freelance writers.
Some Ebony employees described the office environment as a disorganized workplace filled with discord and low morale. In the past four years, Ebony has had three editor-in-chiefs at the helm. The longest serving of them was Amy Barnett, who boosted the paper’s profile and readership after she redesigned the Ebony’s masthead cover and relaunched Ebony.com. After four years, she abruptly left in 2014 to take a job as executive editor with a new Black-oriented ESPN digital publication called, “The Undefeated.”
In 2014, she was succeeded by Mitzi Miller, who left after just 10 months on the job. Miller’s successor, Mayo, was hired in June last year. In November 2015, she was heavily criticized after Ebony published a fractured image of comedian Bill Cosby and the fictional Huxtable family from the “Cosby Show.” The cover drew anger from many Black readers who criticized Ebony for smearing the image of a beloved fictional Black family that was the highest-rated television show of the 1980s. While some critics praised the cover as “brilliant,” many Black readers viewed it as another sign that Ebony had grown out of touch with generations of fans who have supported the magazine for decades.
Now, Ebony’s future is in the hands of Kyra Kyles, a bright Northwestern University graduate and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. After rising through the ranks of the storied company, Kyles is responsible for writing the next chapter in Ebony’s history.
No longer in a family-owned company, there is concern that Ebony ethnic identity will continue to slide.
In her column June 15 in ESPN’s, “The Undefeated,” Kelly Carter, a former entertainment editor for Ebony who also worked at the Chicago Tribune and the said despite Ebony’s problems, it’s still an important magazine for Blacks.
“In a universe where the Kate Hudsons and the Anne Hathaways command the Allure and In Style magazines of the world, we still need a place in the magazine world where we can see the 2009 Taraji P. Hensons of the world; someone Black folks have been rocking with since her 2001 “Baby Boy” debut, not someone we only recently discovered via the powerful explosion of a hot network show that everyone (white people) pays attention to,” Carter wrote.
Then there are some who have an optimistic view about Ebony’s future. They believe Ebony has a chance to grow now with a new owner with vision.
“This is the next chapter in retaining the legacy that my father, John H. Johnson, built to ensure the celebration of African Americans,” stated Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Company and reportedly chairman emeritus on the board of the new company.