'Ebony,' 'Jet' parent takes a bold new tack
Johnson Publishing Company, the black American icon based in Chicago, is hiring. It's a sharp turnaround for a company that saw circulation numbers and revenue for its flagship Ebony and Jet magazines plummet over a number of years. Those numbers are on the rise now, and company officials say questions about Johnson Publishing's ability to survive the turmoil in the media industry are no longer relevant.
The CEO of Johnson Publishing, former White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, has been on the job now for just over a year. Rogers' job is to breathe new life into the company's magazines, along with its Fashion Fair Cosmetics line.
"There's a new energy," Rogers says, "a new excitement and a new pace. We're taking what was and building on that to the next level."
Not just a magazine — a movement
Founded by John H. Johnson and his wife Eunice in 1945, Ebony has provided news for and about African Americans for more than 60 years. The digest-sized Jet came next. Jet's historic coverage of the 1955 lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till helped spark the country's civil rights movement. Rogers says as the company works to reinvent itself, the vision that Johnson had — being an inspiring voice for black Americans — remains, even though there is keen competition for the African-American market.
"Ebony is not just a magazine, it's a movement," Rogers says, "and we're hoping that more than black Americans pick it up, because we need people to be aware of what's transpiring with the 41 million black Americans in this country."
Ebony and Jet still sit atop the black magazine market, but in recent years, circulation for the magazines tumbled drastically, as did ad revenue. Nat Ives, media editor with Advertising Age, says Johnson Publishing turned to outside consultants for help.
"Those consultants decided Ebony was charging too much for subscriptions compared to the competition," Ives says, "wasn't doing enough direct mail marketing, asking for renewals enough. It wasn't even putting enough copies around hair salons and public places where readers might find the magazine, become intrigued, and subscribe."
Circulation was outsourced, and the magazines are now on a rebound. The first half of this year, readership for Ebony rose 11 percent; for Jet, readership rose 8 percent. In August, the Audit Bureau of Circulation listed both among the top 25 fastest-growing consumer magazines.
This summer, Johnson Publishing took a crucial step—selling an equity stake to banker JP Morgan Chase. Speaking on NPR's Tell Me More, Johnson Publishing chairwoman Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of the company's founders, said that it was not a decision taken lightly.
"I really wanted this business to grow, and I really stopped and I thought, if we really want to expand and we want to expand Ebony and Jet and Fashion Fair Cosmetics as brands, right now we just can't do this alone," Rice said. "It's too challenging of an environment."
Rice added that the investment allows the company, which remains black-owned, to accelerate its plans. For more than a year, Johnson Publishing has been setting up a new management and editorial team, recently hiring a new editor-in-chief for Jet magazine and a new director for Ebony's digital operations. Additionally, there's a new president of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and celebrity make-up artist Sam Fine will lead efforts to create new products. Next year the company even plans to consider reviving some form of the Ebony Fashion Fair style show.
For more than 50 years Fashion Fair models strutted on runways wearing dazzling costumes and connecting African Americans to the world of high fashion. But Johnson Publishing discontinued the traveling extravaganza two years ago to focus on revamping its flagship magazines.
Working to attract a new generation
Amy Dubois Barnett, the new editor-in-chief of Ebony, says part of her mission is to make sure the magazine attracts a new generation of readers.
"When I came to Johnson Publishing Company, I was tasked with bringing the average age of the readership down and bringing the average household income of the readership up," Barnett says.
The October issue of Ebony features singer Mary J. Blige on the cover. It also touts an "Ebony Sexy Singles" article, plus a debate over same-sex marriage and an open letter to black male athletes. The September Ebony had actress Zoe Saldana on the cover and also promoted an education special on how to raise a high achiever—along with fall fashion ideas.
Barnett says she's working to balance fashion, entertainment and news that is empowering "and also still very rooted in the coverage of social issues and political issues that Ebony has always done so well."
Richard Prince, columnist for the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education and columnist at TheRoot.com, a website dedicated to African-American news, says one of the most pressing challenges for the entire magazine industry has been Internet competition. Nevertheless, Prince says Johnson Publishing has an edge.
"They still have an advantage in doing traditional journalism," Prince says. "The magazine features stories and even news, whereas a lot of the other Internet publications deal basically with opinion and op-ed pieces."
Still, in her quest to attract 30-somethings, Barnett says she's already introduced an iPad application for Ebony and intends to launch a new website by the end of the year.
During an informal survey at Chicago's Bud Billiken parade, the largest African-American parade in the country, Ron Jones, a 52-year-old contractor, said he's been reading Ebony and Jet for the better part of his life.
"It taps into the community, who I am, an African-American, and it gives me insight on the entertainment and things that are happening not only in the city but in the country and around the world," Jones says.
For 32-year-old Iesha Clark, Ebony magazine still belongs to earlier generations.
"I've heard of it and seen it a few times, but I haven't read it before," Clark says.
Johnson Publishing officials say they recognize the challenge. They are planning a hard marketing push for the revamped Ebony and its website. The redesign of Jet will occur towards the end of the year.