Johnson Publishing Co., owner of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines that helped changed the negative image of black people portrayed by U.S. media, filed for bankruptcy liquidation Tuesday in a federal court in Chicago.
In announcing the Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, the company said it was “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.” The issues included the bankruptcy of a major retailer that carried its Fashion Fair Cosmetics line, a “costly recall” of products and increasing competition from digital rivals, the company said.
John H. Johnson founded the company in 1942 when he launched Negro Digest with a $500 loan from his mother. The magazine summarized newspaper articles about black life.
But key to the company’s growth was Ebony magazine, founded in 1945 and patterned after Life magazine, one of the nation’s leading magazines at the time. The average monthly circulation of Ebony was around 2 million for a time in the 1990s, making it the largest magazine catering to blacks.
Advertisers were initially reluctant to display their products in black-oriented publications because of concerns on how they would be perceived by other customers if they were seen as catering to blacks. The company overcame those fears by building on personal relationships and bringing perspective advertisers to the company’s offices, Johnson officials said.
Ebony was often criticized for focusing too much on successful people. In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Johnson said he believed Ebony has made an important contribution to black people.
“It has inspired them to be successful by showing examples of blacks who have made it,” Johnson said.
However, Ebony and Jet also addressed social issues affecting black America. Jet became a legendary part of the civil rights movement in 1955 when it published a photograph of the open coffin of Emmett Till, which showed the effects of the fatal beating the 14-year-old Chicago boy suffered at the hands of white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
“Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated,” the company said in Tuesday’s statement.
After reporting revenues in the hundreds of millions in the 1990s, the company’s fortunes began to decline after Johnson died in 2005 and magazines in general began to struggle as advertisers moved to alternative media.
With Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, in charge, the company tried to halt its decline with the sale of its assets, including its historic headquarters on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
A company spokesman said Rice was unavailable for comment. However, the company said in a statement that declining revenue and circulation was reversed in 2012, but resumed as the company struggled to transition into the digital media age.
“While the wisdom of hindsight might suggest different decisions should have been made, Linda is proud of the 77-year legacy of Johnson Publishing, her family’s historical impact on America and the city of Chicago, and her decades of hard work trying to revitalize the company,” the statement said.
In 2014, Jet ceased print editions and became a digital-only publication. In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to Clear View Group, an equity firm in Texas.
Despite being under new ownership, the company struggled financially, with freelance writers suing to be paid. The lawsuit was settled last year.