When John J. Johnson set out to create magazines by, for, and about black Americans, he was taking on a model that might not have seemed viable, culturally or financially. But he succeeded. For nearly three-quarters of a century Johnson Publishing—a Chicago-based, black-family-owned company—produced Jet and Ebony, two of the most widely recognized names in minority-focused media. Last week, Johnson Publishing sold off the two iconic brands, effectively exiting the publishing industry.
In its obituary of Johnson, The New York Times quotes him as saying that his hope in creating Ebony was, to "show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life." He succeeded in that and more. It was Jet magazine, for instance, that in 1955 published the gruesome photos of a murdered Emmett Till, forcing Americans to reckon with the reality of racial brutality. The success of these magazines over many decades was proof that they were filling an important role, providing long-absent representation of black Americans in glossy publications. And that stories that were important to black Americans, and perhaps uncomfortable for white ones, had a place on newsstands too. That was important not just symbolically or culturally, but also economically. The success of Johnson Publishing’s magazines showed that black American audiences were made up of valuable consumers, who advertisers, businesses, and publishers would be wise to pay attention to.