Last week marked an end of an era for the historic Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company. After 71-year run as an outlet for the expression of both the highest aspirations and deepest frustrations of African Americans, the family-owned business has sold its iconic lifestyle magazine — Ebony— and the now digital-only Jet magazine.
The magazines were sold to Clear View Group, a private equity firm in Texas that has been described as African-American-owned. Johnson Publishing will retain its ownership of Fashion Fair cosmetics and the company’s extensive photo archives.
Johnson Publishing was founded by John H. Johnson, the grandson of slaves who became the first African-American to appear on the Forbes List of the 400 Richest Americans. His depiction of African-American notables living elegant lives set a new standard for coverage of black Americans. So too did his decision to publish photos of the open casket of the Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was kidnapped and tortured by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.
NPR’s Michel Martin spoke with Kyra Kyles, vice president of digital content, who will serve as the new editor-in-chief of Ebony and Jet, and to Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing and daughter of founder John Johnson; she will retain the title of chairman of the old company and will take a position on the board of the new entity.
On the editorial future of the magazines
Kyles: We can continue to be what John Johnson wanted us to be, which is this — not only an educator, an entertainer, but a beacon of hope providing an example and showing people, “Hey, here’s some of the most wonderful things that black people are doing all over the world,” and inspiring people to know that they can do the same.
On if it was painful to sell the business that had been in her family for seven decades
LJR: Not really. I think if I have to be honest with you, I’m very excited. There are different emotions that you go through at different stages. But I think when you come to a realization that this is really in the best interest of the brand, it really is in the best interest to be able to expand our audience and our reach, then you get to a point where you decide. … This really is a decision that needs to be made and you have to be confident and feel very good about that.
On if there’s a sense of loss in the broader African-American community because of the sale
LJR: Actually, what I’m hearing is a little more bittersweet, not necessarily a sense of loss. As a matter of fact, I’m hearing more positive things because first of all, it’s really wonderful that this is an African-American investment group. So you got two African-American companies coming together and doing business with each other.
On what is the bitter and what is the sweet resulting from selling the business
LJR: The bitter might be just an initial reaction of, “Oh my goodness, it’s sold,” but not really understanding fully that I will be chairman emeritus of the new company, which is Ebony Media Operations. It is African-American led and owned, and I have a seat on the board and I also have an equity position in the company so I’m still there. I’ve not walked away from this at all. I love Ebony, I love Jet, so I think the audience needs to understand that.
On the “famous story” about her father donning a disguise to get access to and buy one of his offices
LJR: What he did was, in order to buy this building, he actually had to have a white gentleman who was really was kind of the face of the purchase, and my father proceeded to act like he was just a janitor so he could just walk through the building and take a look at it. And that is the nuts and bolts of that story.
On the significance of Jet and Ebony as chroniclers of the African-American experience and the continued need for such publications
LJR: I think you will find that a lot of young African-Americans are really searching for, “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” and “What is my past?” I think we’re as relevant now as we’ve ever been. For example, when we did the Bill Cosby cover in fall of last year, it was a lot of controversy.
It was the Cosby family on the cover, but overlaid on that it appeared to be a shattered glass. So it really wasn’t just about the shattering of the Huxables, it was really a shattering of the black family. And it was a question about that and where do we stand on that. And so, these are things that are very, very relevant that Ebony will continue to cover.
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