The end of an almost 70-year legacy is upon us as the last bastion of black-owned media space known as the Johnson Publishing Company, owner of Ebony and Jet magazines, will now only be partially black-owned. As Essence Magazine, BET and other black-owned outlets found themselves running into the arms of a financial white knight, the Johnson family fought hard to maintain its independence.
Johnson Publishing announced last week that JP Morgan Chase has acquired a “substantial” minority stake in the company. It is the first time in the company’s history that it will not be fully family-owned, meaning it’s no longer fully black-owned. No one should really be too surprised by the announcement considering that Johnson Publishing has been struggling in recent years with declining circulation and advertising sales.
The black-owned publishing company has been trying to turn itself around with structural changes such as a workforce reduction, the sale of the building that served as the company’s headquarters for 4 decades and the hiring of Desiree Rogers, former White House social secretary, as its CEO.
It has yet to be revealed how much stake JP Morgan will gain in the acquisition, but Johnson Publishing officials say it is enough to “[give] us the capital to move forward with the plans we’ve been working on.” Those plans include “re-branding” Ebony and Jet, remaking a digital platform for both publications and marketing Fashion Fair cosmetics more effectively.
It may feel like a half-mast day for some in the media world, however the internet has become a black hole, gobbling up what’s left of print publications. Likewise, most black readers who continue to subscribe, do so out of loyalty or some sort of romanticized sentiment of what they believe the publications stands for. Seriously, when was the last time you actually read Jet?
If there were ever a source of pride in Black media, it would be the Johnson Publishing Company. Founded in 1945 with an initial press run of 25,000 copies, John H. Johnson built Ebony Magazine into a media beast, with a circulation of 1.9 million in 1997. Jet was founded in 1951 and had an equally impressive amount of success.
Most of us remember the happy days of Ebony and Jet, when both magazines had unquestioned power within the Black community. Minds were shaped and stars were born within the pages of those magazines. But with power comes some degree of arrogance and complacency. Many felt that the Johnson family was too slow to adapt to the sudden rush of Internet media, which reshaped the landscape.
This partnership between JP Morgan Chase and the Johnson family, quite honestly, bothers me. Most of us are incredibly uncomfortable with the fact that the ability of African Americans to find our own voice has been slowly imperialized by big, wealthy (mostly white) corporations. It all seems harmless at first, like the pimp who offers food to the hungry girl in the bus station. Before long, the girl is wondering how she ended up on the corner turning tricks for another hit of blow.
The point is that Black ownership in media must be considered an issue of cultural security. The same way the United States doesn’t allow too much foreign ownership of its airlines or nuclear power plants (without regard to how much extra money they can make by selling out), African Americans must understand the value of keeping specific assets within the control of Black people. No matter how well-intended a partnership might be on the surface, the truth is that when the hard decisions are being made and that white editor comes into your office to tell you that your article is too radical, you have no choice but to stand down.
Power comes with ownership, nothing less. Black folks need to learn this valuable lesson.