Sale of Ebony, Jet opens ‘next chapter’ for African-American publications

Johnson Publishing announced the sale of its African-American lifestyle magazines on Tuesday. The new owner, a private equity firm, says it intends to continue their legacy.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Kenya Moore attends Ebony Magazine and Apple Celebrate Black Hollywood held at Neuehouse Hollywood on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Los Angeles.

After 71 years of covering African-American life, Johnson Publishing is exiting the publishing business. 

The family-run publishing company announced the sale of its publications, Ebony and Jet, to a private equity firm on Tuesday. African-American-owned Clear View Group, a Texas-based firm, purchased the publications for an undisclosed amount.

"This is the next chapter in retaining the legacy that my father, John H. Johnson, built to ensure the celebration of African-Americans," Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing, said in a statement Tuesday. She will serve as chairman emeritus on the board of the new company, Ebony Media Operations.

Ebony Media Operations will keep on much of the current staff and maintain its Chicago offices, according to Michael Gibson, co-founder and chairman of Clear View Group. Gibson also plans to keep the monthly Ebony magazine in print for the foreseeable future.

"There's a lot of good reasons to keep the print," Gibson told the Chicago Tribune. "That will always be our anchor. We want to grow the digital platform more consistently with both Ebony and Jet."

Ebony and Jet magazines and their websites reach nearly 72% of African-Americans and have a following of over 20.4 million, according to the Johnson Publishing Company website.

Yet Johnson Publishing has struggled in recent years to find a successful business model. Jet was losing money as a weekly digest, and so transitioned to an all-digital format two years ago. The company also experimented with an app in the summer of 2014, according to the Chicago Tribune, but nixed the idea three months later.

Last year, Johnson Publishing put up for sale its historic photo archive and hopes to get $40 million for a collection that includes iconic images of the civil rights movement and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of King’s widow and child, taken at his funeral.

“[The sale of Ebony] allows Johnson Publishing to reduce its debt associated with the media company and focus on growth of its cosmetics business,” Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers told the New York Post.

Ebony and Jet stand out in an American media landscape where minorities are underrepresented. The percentage of minority journalists in newsrooms has remained relatively stable for the past decade, hovering between 12 and 14 percent, according to a 2015 census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University.

At the same time, minorities make up 37.8 percent of the US population. The US Census Bureau expects that, by 2044, minorities will collectively become the majority, making up more than half of the American population.

Thirty-eight percent of of African-Americans said in the 2014 study that the news they consume does not at all accurately portray their community or does so just slightly, according to an American Press Institute report, indicating an ongoing need for publications that speak to African-Americans directly.

For many years, Ebony and Jet were viewed as the voice of the African-American community. "[F]or those who grew up in an era either stuck in segregation or its immediate aftermath, Ebony and Jet were much-needed national publications that confirmed the humanity of black existence when other mainstream publications ignored it," writes Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, for The Root.

But Boyd says he would not be sad to see the iconic magazines lose their foothold. "Though many may bemoan the sale, it’s time to come into the present," he writes. "In the era of the first black American president, such heirlooms need to be put to rest or at least viewed in a way that is consistent with the times in which we live. In that sense, the potential sale of Ebony and Jet signifies not so much a loss as an opportunity."

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