John H. Johnson, magazine publisher

John H. Johnson, one of the most important figures in 20th century mass media, died on Monday, Aug. 8. Johnson was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago and the originator of Ebony and Jet magazines — two publications that have had a profound and wide-ranging effect on journalism, particularly on the world of magazines.

Johnson began his publishing empire in 1942 with an idea — the African-American as a consumer.

It was an age when most African-Americans were invisible to whites and when treatment of African-Americans by the white media was degrading. That a black person could aspire to a better life — looking good, feeling good, confidence about the future, acquiring material goods, etc. — never occurred to to most white media owners.

But it occurred to Johnson, and he believe that he could give those aspirations a voice — and make a lot of money doing so.

Johnson was born in Arkansas in 1918, the grandson of former slaves. He was unable to attend high school there, and he and his mother relocated in Chicago. There he graduate from high school and attended the University of Chicago for a while, but he soon dropped out and took a job with the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Co., editing its company magazine. He had seen Reader’s Digest and noted its success, and he was convinced that the same type of magazine for black people could be published.

In 1942 he published the first issue of Negro Digest with $500 that his mother borrowed using her furniture as equity and $6,000 raised from readers of the insurance publication he was editing. Once the magazine was in print, he persuaded 20 of his friends to ask Chicago magazine retailers to order it from their distributors. He used the same tactic in other cities, and within a year, the magazine was selling 50,000 copies a month.

Three years later, he took another step toward his idea of creating a black consumer market and giving voice to black aspirations with the publication of Ebony magazine. It was filled with stories and pictures of famous, successful and beautiful black people and was directed at a market that, with the end of World War II, was awakening to the American dream. Selling corporate advertisers that such a market existed was no easy task for Johnson and others who worked with him. But the readership was there, and eventually and slowly, advertisers began to take note.

Today Ebony has a circulation of 1.7 million, and Jet magazine, a smaller-format, issue-oriented magazine sells 927,000 copies. Johnson expanded his publishing copy to books and other publications, and in the 1970s he started a cosmetics corporation.

Johnson and Ebony were often criticized for not being more forceful and hard-hitting during the Civil Rights moments of the 1950s and 1960s, but Johnson never saw politics as the main subject area that would interest his market. Still, he was an active advocate of civil rights and a contributor of time and money to many causes. Ebony itself played a direct role at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement by publishing pictures of the open coffin of Emmitt Till in 1955. Till, 14, had been killed by a gang of whites in Mississippi, and pictures of his mangled body shocked the public, both black and white, into realizing that injustice to blacks was a problem society could not ignore.

But Johnson and Ebony weren’t about politics. As Jacqueline Trescott, a former Johnson staffer, wrote in her remembrance in the Washington Post:

The content of his magazines was designed to counter all the ugly stereotypes of black people that existed elsewhere. In time, some of the articles created some new stereotypes — the driveways full of luxury cars, the annual look at black bachelors. The news was there, but the investigative and explanatory journalism was secondary to a good layout. “We don’t rush to print critical things about black leaders — even if it’s true,” Johnson once said.

And he didn’t apologize for putting the most recognized black celebrities on the covers; the white celebrity magazines weren’t doing it. “We are looking for people with instant recognition,” Johnson said, “and most of those people, among blacks, unfortunately, are entertainers and sports figures.”

And the celebrities themselves saw Ebony and Jet as vehicles to speak directly to black people. Who could forget actress Diahann Carroll answering those who said she was turning her back on the black community with a stinging article titled “I’ve Been Black All the Time.”

So it has been left to Ebony and Jet to feed our curiosity about the groundbreaking figures, from Arthur Ashe to Colin Powell. To learn about historically black colleges, their leaders, their hardships. To see black athletes in their off-the-field glory. In the latest issue of Ebony, I didn’t want to know all the details about actress Holly Robinson Peete, but reading last week’s Jet, I did want to know all there was to say about Luther Vandross. And Johnson knew that people would be drawn in, silly or not, for a taste of black life.

More about Johnson can be found at the following links:

New York Times: John H. Johnson, 87, founder of Ebony, dies

Chicago Tribune: Founder of Ebony Magazine dead at 87

Ebony magazine (Johnson Publishing)

Jim Stovall
(Posted Aug. 10, 2005)

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