The Glover Report: The Demise of Black Media Icon Johnson Publishing Company

By Doni Glover, Publisher
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Johnson Publishing Company was founded in 1942 by John Harold Johnson, who, at the time was working as an office clerk for Chicago-based Supreme Life Insurance Company of America. Using money from a $500 loan he secured by leveraging his mother’s furniture, Johnson mailed $2 charter subscription offers to members who had life insurance through Supreme Life. In return, He received more than 3,000 completed subscription offers and with the money from that he printed his first publication entitled Negro Digest in November 1942. By mid–1943, the monthly circulation of the Negro Digest had reached 50,000 copies. By 2013, the Johnson company’s revenue was $90 million.

(BALTIMORE – April 12, 2019) – As a child, (I’m 53) I’ve always remembered the three main magazines for my community: Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise. I’d see them everywhere, including in my dad’s funeral home. My dad was fond of all three and had subscriptions. After all, they had the greatest looking covers; as a child, these images were powerful to see.

To see the African American celebrities and success stories throughout my childhood served as an ever-present reminder that I could accomplish anything in life with a little hard work.

A couple days ago, we learned that the Johnson Publishing Company had filed bankruptcy. They once produced Ebony and Jet magazines.

First of all, a huge thanks to the legacy of founder John H. Johnson and his family for providing us with 77 years of black press. Johnson built an incredible empire that touched countless African Americans and others for nearly 8 decades. That alone is an accomplishment!

Secondly, as a journalist who cut his teeth in the newspaper business – including being an Afro Newspaper boy and later a writer for the Afro – April 9, 2019 will forever be a murky reminder that this business is perpetually subject to change. Having published my own magazine for 6 months, I also understand how digital media is now the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Even traditional radio has been impacted. Television, I imagine, is the final frontier on what used to be.

My publication, The North Avenue Review, gave me a chance to understand the print business from beginning to end. And in 2002 after producing 6 monthly editions, I quickly concluded that an online publication would be more feasible for what I was seeking to do.

Those of us in the industry have been monitoring the slow death of print publications ever since we first heard AOL’s “You’ve got mail.” We all knew it was just a matter of time. So, in short, JPC’s demise marks the end of an era. Today, it is all about digital. And those who best embrace the digital formats are most likely to survive and hopefully thrive through yet another era in media.

Considering the significance of the loss of JPC, I had to reach out to some people I know in the media world to record their thoughts. They have been both mentors and colleagues, and I needed to hear and record some of their wisdom on the matter.

Take Kenny Brown, for instance. He is the publisher of the Northwest Voice Newspaper that serves Baltimore County from Catonsville to Pikesville every month. He’s been in the media business his entire career.

“When I heard the news, I found it very troubling,” said Brown. “It bothers me. We, who are in Black media, have a problem. Each time we lose a Black publication or Black media outlet, it repeatedly leaves the question: Who will be left to tell our story?”

He added, “I was sad to hear the news about JPC because what it basically means is that we are not supporting our Black media outlets. We need to support them. If we continue to not pick up these publications, advertisers will start to walk away.”

When asked how this news affects his business, Brown replied, “Well, it makes me work harder and I try to stress to advertisers and readers alike the significance of us supporting us. Black folks support white media, but can we say that white folks are going to support Black media? They don’t find it necessary to support Black media. We need to understand that if we don’t support us, we certainly cannot expect others to do so either.”

I heard in Kenny Brown’s comments that no one is coming to save us. Thus, it is up to us to do whatever is necessary to keep our institutions viable.

William Wingo was the publisher of a Baltimore publication for three decades. It was called “Power Magazine” and focused primarily on the church community. Last year, Wingo let the company go.

When asked his thoughts about JPC, he said, “It’s a sign of the times.” He added, “Everything is going to a new platform. And while that platform hasn’t been fully determined yet, it will clearly include digital or some form of print.”

Wingo pointed out how digital is instantaneous, compared to print.

“Print is no longer relevant. By the time it hits the newspaper, it’s no longer news.”

I also spoke with former Afro publisher Jake Oliver. Founded in 1892, I grew up in the Afro family as a paperboy. It wasn’t until decades later that I came to fully appreciate that history alone. You see, the Afro has a long tradition here on the East Coast and in many parts of the South. The paper was regional and its impact was very strong. So too was the paperboy’s role in all of this. A few years back, the Afro called all of the surviving paperboys – and papergirls (I had no idea) together down at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for a reunion event. I learned so much and met so many incredible people whom were also positively impacted by their experiences at the historic Afro American newspaper. It was a phenomenal experience as there was so much information to soak up – all in one place. It was beautiful.

Oliver, when asked about JPC, replied, “It’s sad to see JPC, which has been an institution in our community, close. Today’s environment is very challenging to most traditional media.” He added, “A transition is being forced upon historic print newspapers and the print business in general.”

Oliver, under whose leadership the Afro’s social media outlets including Facebook grew to nearly three-quarters of a million followers (a stellar accomplishment), has encouraged his mentees to embrace social media from its onset. He spoke about the early days of the digital evolution when he and his cousin, the late Arthur Murphy, were dabbled in DOS. He said to see how the internet has evolved is nothing short of fascinating.

“The demise of JPC is one more example of how difficult times are. We have to adjust to these changes. We can’t do business the old way because that doesn’t provide the answers to survival. Publishing giants have yet to master this new age.”

Oliver went on to reflect on the JPC founder: “I recall how we were celebrated John H. Johnson back in the early 90s. We had an event at the Baltimore Civic Center to recognize his achievements … I also remember recognizing Mr. Johnson’s achievements during my term as president of the National Newspaper Publishers (NNPA) at one of our conventions in Chicago. He and I had a long conversation about how things were in the newspaper business. Even then, there were changes occurring that no one could fully understand.”

When asked his advice to emerging Black journalists, he said, “Keep your eyes open, respect the history, and write the facts. Your number one job is to provide the facts that help explain the significance of what you are telling readers.”

He also said to young writers, “Try not to prejudge in your reporting.  If such becomes too difficult,  write an editorial column, instead, to express your personal opinion.

His point: “There is a difference between an editorial and an article.”

Another point he made, though, is that in this new digital world, the lines are more blurred. “It’s still to be debated. My advice is, based on being truthful to your craft, write the facts, and investigate them thoroughly so that readers can make accurate decisions based on what you shared with them.”

As Oliver reflected, he said, “Newsstands are becoming rarer and rarer. It’s just sad to see this uncertain evolution of the print publication environment. Jet and Ebony gave us a perspective and a very entertaining picture of various levels of our community. It is being missed. You could pick up Ebony and see what Dorothy Dandridge’s house looked like and say, ‘We can do that, too!’ And the pinups in the middle of Jet Magazine – were all a part of growing up. It’s just a sad time, but that’s an element of evolution. You can never expect things to stay the way they were. We ask, what is progress? The truth of the matter is that you are going to have to change. We just have to strive harder to understand what those changes are.”

I also spoke with former Afro publisher Jake Oliver. Founded in 1892, I grew up in the Afro family as a paperboy. It wasn’t until decades later that I came to fully appreciate that history alone. You see, the Afro has a long tradition here on the East Coast and in many parts of the South. The paper was regional and its impact was very strong. So too was the paperboy’s role in all of this. A few years back, the Afro called all of the surviving paperboys – and papergirls (I had no idea) together down at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for a reunion event. I learned so much and met so many incredible people whom were also positively impacted by their experiences at the historic Afro American newspaper. It was a phenomenal experience as there was so much information to soak up – all in one place. It was beautiful.

Oliver, when asked about JPC, replied, “It’s sad to see JPC, which has been an institution in our community, close. Today’s environment is very challenging to most traditional media.” He added, “A transition is being forced upon historic print newspapers and the print business in general.”

Oliver, under whose leadership the Afro’s social media outlets including Facebook grew to nearly three-quarters of a million followers (a stellar accomplishment), has encouraged his mentees to embrace social media from its onset. He spoke about the early days of the digital evolution when he and his cousin, the late Arthur Murphy, were dabbled in DOS. He said to see how the internet has evolved is nothing short of fascinating.

“The demise of JPC is one more example of how difficult times are. We have to adjust to these changes. We can’t do business the old way because that doesn’t provide the answers to survival. Publishing giants have yet to master this new age.”

Oliver went on to reflect on the JPC founder: “I recall how we were celebrated John H. Johnson back in the early 90s. We had an event at the Baltimore Civic Center to recognize his achievements … I also remember recognizing Mr. Johnson’s achievements during my term as president of the National Newspaper Publishers (NNPA) at one of our conventions in Chicago. He and I had a long conversation about how things were in the newspaper business. Even then, there were changes occurring that no one could fully understand.”

When asked his advice to emerging Black journalists, he said, “Keep your eyes open, respect the history, and write the facts. Your number one job is to provide the facts that help explain the significance of what you are telling readers.”

He also said to young writers, “Try not to prejudge in your reporting.  If such becomes too difficult,  write an editorial column, instead, to express your personal opinion.

His point: “There is a difference between an editorial and an article.”

Another point he made, though, is that in this new digital world, the lines are more blurred. “It’s still to be debated. My advice is, based on being truthful to your craft, write the facts, and investigate them thoroughly so that readers can make accurate decisions based on what you shared with them.”

As Oliver reflected, he said, “Newsstands are becoming rarer and rarer. It’s just sad to see this uncertain evolution of the print publication environment. Jet and Ebony gave us a perspective and a very entertaining picture of various levels of our community. It is being missed. You could pick up Ebony and see what Dorothy Dandridge’s house looked like and say, ‘We can do that, too!’ And the pinups in the middle of Jet Magazine – were all a part of growing up. It’s just a sad time, but that’s an element of evolution. You can never expect things to stay the way they were. We ask, what is progress? The truth of the matter is that you are going to have to change. We just have to strive harder to understand what those changes are.”

 

 

 

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