Johnson Publishing on Michagan Avenue in Chicago

The End of an Era: Johnshon Publishing Company Declares Bankruptcy

Former owner of Ebony and Jet magazines liquidates after nearly eight decades in business

By William C. Jackson

Johnson Publishing Company, whose iconic magazines Ebony and Jet chronicled Black life in America, announced on April 9th that it has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in a federal court in Chicago.

The Associated Press reports that in filing the 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.” These 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.

The 77-year-old company, which sold Ebony and Jet almost three years ago, was unable to restructure its operations or arrange financing or a sale, said the Chicago Tribune.

Johnson Publishing Company was founded in Chicago by John H. Johnson in 1942, when he launched Negro Digest, which summarized newspaper articles about Black life. Johnson started the company with a $500 loan from his mother, according to AP. Three years later, he launched Ebony, a monthly lifestyle magazine. In 1951, Jet, a digest-style publication that initially was billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine” began publication, according to the Tribune.

Both publications regularly reported on African-American success stories but also confronted persuasive racism in the United States, per the Washington Post. Ebony’s first issue included an editorial that called for equal employment opportunities after World War II, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

But what put Jet on the map was the magazine’s decision in 1955 to publish a photo of the open casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, which showed the effects of the fatal beating the Chicago teen suffered at the hands of white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Historians point to that decision as a focal point in the civil rights movement, according to the Post.

In 1973, the company debuted Fashion Fair cosmetics as one of the first cosmetics lines for women of color. According to the Tribune, it was the preeminent makeup brand for women of color for decades. And for 50 years, the company sponsored the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling runway show led by John H. Johnson’s wife, Eunice Johnson, with designs by Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld and others, modeled by African-American women and men.

After reporting revenues in the hundreds of millions in the 1990s, the company’s fortunes began to decline after John H. Johnson died in 2005 and magazines in general began to struggle as advertisers moved to alternative media, according to AP. With Linda Johnson Rice, Johnson’s daughter, in charge, the company tried to halt its decline with the sale of its assets.

Johnson Publishing sold its 11-story office Michigan Avenue building to Columbia College in 2010. Columbia then sold the building to a developer who plans to turn the building into apartments, per the Tribune. In 2015, the company put its entire photo archive up for sale with the hopes of getting $40 million for it. And in June 2016, Ebony and Jet, which became a digital-only publication in 2014, were sold to a Texas-based private equity firm for an undisclosed price.

Fashion Fair and the photo archive will be among the assets sold through the bankruptcy process.

“Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African-American history since its founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated,” the company said in its statement, per the Associated Press.

“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.”

Linda Johnson Rice at Johnson Publishing, 2015
Linda Johnson Rice handles some of the photos in the archives at Johnson Publishing in 2015. Photo credit Nancy Stone

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