Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.

1820 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60605
Telephone: (312) 322-9200
Fax: (312) 322-0918
Web site:

Private Company
Incorporated: 1942 as Negro Digest Publishing Co.
Employees: 2,000
Sales: $488.5 million (2003)
NAIC: 511120 Periodical Publishers; 511130 Book Publishers; 561510 Travel Agencies

Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., is the world's largest African American-owned publishing company. It is the home of Ebony and Jet magazines, as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Ebony Fashion Fair, and the Johnson Publishing Company Book Division. Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of founder John H. Johnson, operates as president and CEO of the company.

Humble Beginnings in 1942

Johnson Publishing Company was founded in November 1942 by John H. Johnson—who was working part-time as an office boy for Supreme Life Insurance Company of America, located in Chicago, Illinois—and his wife, Eunice. Johnson's job was to clip magazine and newspaper articles about the African American community. As he clipped, the idea for an African American-oriented magazine came to mind. Using his mother's furniture as collateral, he secured a loan of $500. He then mailed out $2 charter subscription offers to potential subscribers. More than 3,000 replies came in, and the $6,000 was used to print the first issue of Negro Digest, a magazine based on the popular Reader's Digest.

Negro Digest Publishing Co. was born. Immediately facing obstacles such as finding a landlord willing to rent him office space in a not-yet-desegregated United States, Johnson managed to secure a room in the private law office of Earl B. Dickerson, on the second floor of his employer's building, the Supreme Life Insurance Company. In 1943 Johnson purchased a building at 5619 South State Street, to house the fledgling company. In 1949 the company converted a funeral parlor at 1820 South Michigan Avenue into office space and moved there, a location that would remain the company's headquarters into the new millennium, although it would grow to be 11 stories tall. Along the way, Negro Digest, which had a circulation at one time of 100,000 subscribers, was renamed Black World. In the 1970s, the readership dwindled, and the magazine was finally canceled in 1975.

By that time, however, the company was going strong with other products. In 1945 Johnson launched Ebony, a magazine patterned after Life, but focusing on the African American community, culture, and achievements. It was an immediate success and remained the company's flagship publication into the 21st century, with a readership at one point of more than 1.3 million. In 1951 Johnson created another magazine, called Jet, a celebrity-oriented magazine focusing on African American entertainers and public figures. For nearly 20 years, these two magazines were the only publications for African Americans in the United States.

Unable to obtain advertising in those years, Johnson created the Beauty Star mail-order company and began advertising its products, such as haircare products, wigs, and vitamins in his own magazines. In 1947 the company picked up its first major advertising account in Zenith Radio and, after sending a salesman to Detroit every week for nearly ten years, finally managed to sign Chrysler Corporation in 1954. The magazine drew the talents of many people, including author Era Bell Thompson (1905–1986), who served as associate editor of Ebony from 1948 to 1951, and co-managing editor from 1951 to 1964, before becoming international editor for the company thereafter.

In 1957 Ebony Fashion Fair blazed a trail of fashion excellence that has endured the test of time. Four gorgeous African American models brought fashion excitement to audiences in ten cities—Chicago; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Baltimore; Los Angeles; Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland, Ohio; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C.—where they displayed an array of dazzling American designer fashions. The late Freda DeKnight, Ebony magazine's home service director and Ebony Fashion Fair's first commentator, paraded fashions in homespun rhetoric weaving imaginary tales about each model and fashion. The 41st annual tour took place in the 1998–99 fashion season, with audiences still experiencing lively commentary, enriched with synthesizer programming, a drummer, a bassist, R&B, jazz, and song and dance routines performed by talented members of the troupe. Thirteen models moved swiftly down the runways and across stages in 1998 and 1999, emphasizing elegance and excitement as they displayed American and European fashions brilliant with color, detail, and pizzazz. At the conclusion of the 40th annual tour, funds raised since inception by sponsors of the show had reached $45 million, all designated for various charities and scholarships. By then the show had given 540 young people and 112 wardrobe assistants the opportunity to visit cities and countries of many cultures, and had been sponsored by more than 180 prestigious social and civic organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, and the Urban League.

Johnson quickly soared to fame. By the early 1960s, he was one of the most prominent African American men in the country. In 1963, he and John F. Kennedy posed together to publicize a special issue of Ebony, which was celebrating The Emancipation Proclamation. In 1972, U.S. magazine publishers gave him accolades as Publisher of the Year. He also would go on to become chairman and CEO of Supreme Life Insurance Company, his first employer.

In 1973 the company began publishing Ebony Jr! (now defunct), a magazine designed to provide "positive black images" for pre-teens. Johnson branched out into new media formats when he began buying radio stations, including WJPC, Chicago's first African American-owned station. The following year, the company purchased WLOU in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the mid-1980s, the company acquired WLNR in Lansing, Illinois, which was merged with WJPC in 1992; the combined station was sold in 1995. Also in 1973, Fashion Fair Cosmetics was founded by the company in answer to the problems that women of color had in finding shades to match their skin tones. The company would go on to compete successfully against such huge competitors as Revlon and Johnson Products of Chicago, an unrelated company. Fashion Fair would grow to become the world's number one cosmetics company for women of color, with annual sales in 1982 reaching more than $30 million, and the products being sold in more than 2,500 stores throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Johnson Publishing in the 1980s

In the early 1980s, Johnson began to groom his daughter Linda, who received her M.B.A. at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg School of Management, to take over the business. Linda started working summers for the company at the age of 15, eventually becoming fashion coordinator for both magazines and cosmetics. Linda Johnson Rice would go on to become president and chief executive officer of the company, as well as a director for companies such as Bausch & Lomb. In 1981 Johnson's adopted son, John E., a staff photographer for the company, died of sickle-cell anemia at age 25. That year, the company's total revenues reached $81 million. The following year, the company's revenue grew to $102 million.

In 1985 the company launched a new magazine called EM ( Ebony Man ), targeted mainly at the growing ranks of increasingly affluent buppies (black urban professionals). Like an African American version of GQ ( Gentlemen's Quarterly ), the inaugural November issue was chock-full of photos of immaculate male models bedecked in the latest fashions of clothing, with a healthy dollop of fashion and grooming tips, and filled with articles on health, fitness, personal finance, and shopping techniques.

In 1988 Johnson was inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame, along with such other luminaries as Harold K. Guinzburg, founder of Viking Press and The Literary Guild; Maxwell Perkins, editor at Charles Scribners Sons; Richard Leo Simon and Max Lincoln Schuster, founders of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; and William Randolph Hearst, founder of Hearst Publishing Corporation. That year, the company had total revenues of $215 million, making it the second largest African American-owned business in the United States, behind Reginald Lewis's TLC Beatrice International Holdings. By this time, Johnson was also on the boards of Greyhound and two of his first advertisers, Chrysler and Zenith. The following year, Johnson was the recipient of IABC's Excellence in Communication "EXCEL" Award. That year, he was also the only African American man on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States. Johnson was also awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

Company Perspectives:

Through its brands, which include EBONY and JET magazines, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, EBONY Fashion Fair and JPC Book Division, Johnson Publishing Company has always aimed at increasing African-Americans' pride in themselves by presenting their past and present achievements to America and to the world. This has been done by portraying the Black American experience in all its dynamics through the medium of printed words, images, cosmetics and fashion. Through the years the company has also labored to provide irrefutable proof to millions of Black Americans, young and old, that their dreams can and do come true. The entire Johnson Publishing Company family shares a deep commitment to meet consumer demands by producing quality products. Because of this commitment, JPC brands strive to continually give inspiration and hope to millions.

Also in 1989, Johnson wrote his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds , with assistance from longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett, Jr. In the autobiography, Johnson explained how he got started. "In organizing the staff [of my first magazine], I reached out to everybody, for I knew nothing about magazine publishing and editing.… When all else failed, I looked in the phone book and called an expert. Since I had nothing to lose, I always started at the top. I received valuable advice from Henry Luce of Time-Life and Gardner Cowles of Look.… It was hard to get through to Luce, but … I used a simple approach that almost always worked. I simply told the secretary or aide that I was the president—I stressed the word president—of my company. 'It is,' I said, 'a small company but I am the president, and I want to talk to your president.… If the president of the smallest country in the world comes to Washington, our president, as a matter of public policy and protocol will see him. So it seems to me that your president, in the American tradition, will see me for a few minutes if you pass this request on and tell him that I don't want a donation or a job.' I used that on Henry Luce's secretary, and I got in to see him."

New Ventures in the 1990s

In 1991 the company sold its controlling interest in the last minority-owned insurance company in Illinois, Supreme Life Insurance, Johnson's first employer, to Chicago-based Unitrin, a life, health, and property insurance company. Total revenues for 1991 climbed to $281 million. Also that year, the company entered into a joint venture with catalog company Spiegel Inc. to develop a fashion line and mail-order catalog aimed at African American women, launching a mail-order catalog called E Style to that effect in 1993. An accompanying credit card with the E Style imprint appeared in 1994.

In October 1992, the company introduced "Ebone," a new line of cosmetics for women of color, as well as a three-part videotape series called The Ebony/Jet Guide to Black Excellence, which profiled African American leaders, entrepreneurs, and entertainers to help provide positive role models for young people.

In November 1995, the company expanded its operations with the launch of Ebony South Africa, a counterpart to the U.S. version of the magazine. Because trade tariffs on incoming products to South Africa were taxed at 100 percent of the cost, Johnson Publishing subsidiary EBCO International teamed up with five South African companies, with Johnson holding 51 percent of the joint venture, in order to avoid losing money on the project. The company invested $2 million to $3 million on facilities, equipment, and staffing, opening editorial offices in Sandton, near Johannesburg. In the inaugural November 1995 issue, Bishop Desmond Tutu related the story of when he saw his first issue of Ebony, which had Jackie Robinson on the cover, when the cleric was nine years old and living in a ghetto township located some 30 miles outside of Johannesburg.

Total sales for 1997 reached $361.1 million, a 10.9 percent growth over the previous year, in which the company ranked 28th overall in magazine publishing companies by advertising revenue, with $26.8 million for the first half of 1996. Competition in the African American-oriented magazine industry, however, finally began to catch up with Johnson Publishing Company. With a plethora of new titles appearing, such as Black Enterprise, and the rise of other African American-oriented entertainment and informational vehicles such as Black Entertainment Television (BET), circulation of Ebony dropped 7 percent.

Late 1990s and Beyond

Like many of its competitors, Johnson Publishing faced challenges in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. As competing media companies tapped into the growing number of Internet users, the publisher of Jet and Ebony was slow to embrace online technology. An August 1999 Crain's Chicago Business article provided insight on the company's position claiming, "The situation Johnson Publishing confronts is shared by many mid-sized private companies as they grapple with the Internet challenge: an aversion to big investments without assurances of a reasonable financial return, and a desire to maintain controlling positions in all of their enterprises—a tenet that can preclude the sort of partnerships that are a centerpiece of the new media economy."

At the same time, Johnson Publishing faced a decrease in advertising revenues, which were hit even harder after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As such, the company was forced to make some key changes. It redesigned Ebony 's look, adding more fashion spreads and lifestyle stories, and focused on younger, up-and-coming African American celebrities. One critic commented on Ebony 's redesign in a 2004 Crain's Chicago Business article: "It looks a little different, but it's still frozen in the 1970s." Despite the company's efforts, circulation remained stagnant at 1.6 million; it had been 11.7 million in the 1970s.

During this time period, Johnson Publishing revamped its holdings. The catalog venture, E Style, was shuttered in 1997. Ebony Man magazine was canceled in 1998 and Ebony South Africa followed suit in 2000. Johnson Rice was named CEO in 2002, and her father remained chairman.

Despite growing competition and a weak advertising market, Johnson Publishing remained the most successful African American-owned publishing firm in the United States. Along with publishing Ebony and Jet magazines, the company controlled Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which continued to reign as the leading line of makeup and skincare for women of color. Its products were sold in more than 2,500 stores in the United States, Canada, Africa, England, France, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Virgin Islands. In 2005, the Ebony Fashion Fair continued as the largest traveling fashion show with more than $51 million donated to charity since its inception. Johnson Publishing's Book Division published works by African American authors, including Lerone Bennett, Jr. With an arsenal of powerful, well-known brands in the company's portfolio, Johnson Publishing's management was confident its products would be found on store shelves for years to come.

Key Dates:

John H. Johnson establishes Negro Digest Publishing Co.
Ebony is launched.
Jet magazine hits store shelves.
The Ebony Fashion Fair is created.
Black World, formerly known as Negro Digest, is canceled.
Johnson writes his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, with assistance from longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett, Jr.
Linda Johnson Rice is named CEO.

Principal Subsidiaries

EBONY Magazine; Jet Magazine; Fashion Fair Cosmetics; EBONY Fashion Fair.

Principal Divisions

Johnson Publishing Company Book Division.

Principal Competitors

Essence Communications Partners Inc.; L'Oreal S.A.; Advance Publications Inc.

Further Reading

Alpert, Mark, " Jet Powered," Fortune, July 31, 1989, p. 266.

"B.E. Industrial Service 100," Black Enterprise, June 1996, p. 117.

Bordon, Jeff, "As Johnson Watches, Others Seizing the Net," Crain's Chicago Business, August 23, 1999.

Chaplin, Julia, "A Runway Fair That Still Packs the House," New York Times, October 14, 2001.

Cyr, Diane, "Ten Inducted into Publishing Hall of Fame; Scholars, Risk Takers, Writers and Empire Builders Constitute This Year's Honorees," Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management, January 1988, p. 43.

Detar, James, "Publishing for the New Jet Set," Investor's Business Daily, June 6, 2005.

Dingle, Derek T., "Doing Business John Johnson's Way," Black Enterprise, June 1987, p. 150.

——, "New Directions for Black Business," Black Enterprise, August 1985, p. 67.

"Ebony Chief Takes Reins at Father's Publishing Firm," Times Union Albany, April 14, 2002.

"EXCEL Award Winner John H. Johnson Communicates Success," Communication World, May 1989, p. 18.

Falkof, Lucille, John H. Johnson, The Man from Ebony, Ada, Okla.: Garrett Educational Corp., 1991.

Greenberg, Jonathan, "It's a Miracle," Forbes, December 20, 1982, p. 104.

Johnson, John H., Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman, New York: Amistad Press, 1989.

"Like Father, Like Daughter," Fortune, October 3, 1983, p. 180.

Mangelsdorf, Martha E., "Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Business," Inc., October 1993, p. 58.

Mowatt, Raoul, "Jet Magazine Manages to Survive in Hard Times," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 10, 2001.

Mullman, Jeremy, "Redo's the Easiest Part for Ebony," Crain's Chicago Business, June 7, 2004.

"The Silent Strength of Family Businesses," U.S. News & World Report, April 25, 1983, p. 47.

Wellemayer, Marilyn, "A Gym of One's Own," Fortune, February 21, 1983, p. 149.

Whigham-Desir, Marjorie, "Forging New Frontiers: Never Ones to Shy Away from New Ventures, B.E. 100s Companies Are Making Their Mark—and Market—Internationally," Black Enterprise, May 1996, p. 70.

——, "Marathon Men: 25 Years of Black Entrepreneurial Excellence," Black Enterprise, June 1997, p. 104.

—Daryl F. Mallett

—update: Christina M. Stansell

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