Johnson Publishing Co., the black-owned media trailblazer, files for bankruptcy

Johnson Publishing Company, the iconic publisher behind magazines like Ebony and Jet that helped launch the civil rights movement, filed for bankruptcy.

April 11, 2019

Johnson Publishing Company, the American publishing company that launched magazines Ebony and Jet, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after a long run as one of the most influential black-owned publishers in the US.

At a time when mainstream media outlets didn’t make content for (and by) people of color, the family-run publishing company filled the gap with excellent, varied coverage, laying a blueprint for black-owned businesses.

The builder behind a black-owned business empire

John H. Johnson, the grandson of slaves, started his publishing company in 1942 with a $500 loan.

Johnson — who brought a white guy with him and posed as a janitor to buy offices — built the business into an empire that boasted more than 2m readers and spanned magazines, books, TV, radio, and cosmetics. 

Unlike other media outlets, Ebony and Jet highlighted “positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.” But they also fought boldly for racial justice, demanding equal employment and raising national awareness of Emmett Till’s murder.

A brilliant, beleaguered building block for black media

Johnson Publishing Co. — whose current CEO is Linda Johnson Rice, John H. Johnson’s daughter — has struggled to compete with digital outlets, selling its magazines to a private equity firm in 2016.

While Johnson inspired the success of many black-owned businesses, we’re still a long way from racial equality in business: Last year, there were only 3 black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, and that number has never risen higher than 7.

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