Nothing succeeds (with black readers) like success
After 60 years, a magazine pioneer's vision still resonates.
Since Ebony magazine launched in 1945 as the daring idea of John Johnson, who was eulogized at a Chicago ceremony this week, America has seen dramatic racial change.
From migration out of the South to civil rights marchers descending on Alabama, from urban-riot mayhem to mainstream rap, from Jackie Robinson to Condoleezza Rice, black society has seen progress mixed with persistent racial inequality.
Black-oriented publishing has evolved as well. Yet what is perhaps most remarkable is how general-interest publications aimed at blacks - led by Mr. Johnson's Ebony and Jet - remain central influences and touchstones for African-Americans.
"These magazines continue to be vibrant in terms of their circulation and sales because they continue to speak to people," to give a full picture of black life, says Keith Woods, dean of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. Johnson's vision for these magazines made him "a giant not just in black America but in America."
Before Johnson scraped together seed money using furniture as collateral, there had long been black-run local newspapers that blended activism and information.
Yet Johnson's photo-oriented monthly, Ebony, and the weekly news digest Jet were revolutionary - not for advocating social change but for depicting social change. The publications chronicled the successes of black Americans in their incremental as well as monumental achievements.
By mirroring society's evolution, they also enabled it - sending out the message that "black is beautiful," and successful, and important.
It is a role they still play, reaching far into America's black population of 34 million. Paid circulation is 1.7 million at Ebony and almost 1 million at Jet. As it lands in living rooms and barbershops, Ebony is read by an estimated 12 million people a month, according to its family-owned producer, Johnson Publishing Co.
"It gives me inspiration, knowing that people from my background have succeeded," says Bonita Blocker, a young Bostonian who reads these publications when she can, while not subscribing. "That's very important."
Indeed, African-Americans continue to turn to Ebony and Jet, as well as to other major black-oriented publications such as Essence and Black Enterprise, for images of who they are becoming or who they want to be. Although Ms. Blocker and other blacks also devour the mainstream press, from Newsweek to People magazine, the common cultural reference points of an Ebony or Essence fill an ongoing need.
Beyond Ebony and Jet is a wide and thriving universe of black-oriented publications and programming. Black Enterprise has a circulation not far behind its mainstream counterpart, Inc. Vibe, a music magazine, far outpaced the industry average gains in ad sales since 2004. Website blackplanet.com boasts 16 million members. On the airwaves, Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner have become fixtures as show hosts who attract large audiences.
A sign of worry, to some African- Americans, is that much of this media activity is no longer under direct black ownership. Essence magazine is owned by Time Inc. The network BET (Black Entertainment Television) is part of Viacom.
But this can also be seen as a sign of success, as investors increasingly buy into what is seen as a lucrative African- American marketplace.
"If not ownership, then certainly stewardship of those organizations ought to stay with black Americans," Mr. Woods says. "If history is a guide, I would say that [stewardship] will be necessary for years to come," if the story of black America is to be fully told.
That story remains one of struggle as much as success.
On virtually every socioeconomic measure, US blacks remain behind whites. The gap appears in average incomes, but even more starkly in the accumulation of wealth. After the last recession, white households had a median net worth of $88,651, while for blacks the figure was $5,988, according to a 2004 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Yet Johnson emphasized triumphs (even as he covered, unflinchingly, incidents such as the 1955 Mississippi lynching of Chicago teen Emmett Till), and never regretted it as a businessman or as a black American.
His own story was one of overcoming adversity, from a poor upbringing in Arkansas to, by one account, having to send ad representatives to Detroit for 10 years before Chrysler took out advertisements in his magazines.
"Failure is a word he does not accept," explains Jeff Burns, senior vice president at Johnson Publishing. "Ebony was launched to provide positive images and positive role models for black Americans. It is still doing that."
The latest issue of Ebony is a case in point. The cover promotes a photo-rich profile of actress Holly Robinson Peete, her "new baby, new TV show, and renewed marital vows" with her husband of 10 years. Recipes and music reviews spice up a mix that includes an interview with the new leader of the NAACP and "Meet Martin, Martin & Martin," about a set of Mississippi triplets who have grown up to be lawyers.
"In some ways America is even more segmented than it was before," says David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "But these magazines still sell."