August 4, 2011
As the National Association of Black Journalists holds its annual convention in Philadelphia this week, Tell Me More looks at the past, present and future of the world’s top black-owned and -operated publishing company.
In the 1940s, John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice W. Johnson, founded Johnson Publishing Co., which aimed at documenting black Americans’ lives with a dignity and breadth they saw missing from mainstream media. They accomplished this with a $500 loan. The furniture of John Johnson’s mother was used as collateral.
JPC shook the world by publishing graphic photos of Emmet Till, the teenager who was kidnapped, brutally beaten, and murdered by whites in the South in 1955. His mutilated body was barely recognizable. Then in 1972, JPC decided to build in Chicago one of the only major downtown office buildings designed by African-Americans.
The company is now run by John and Eunice Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Rice says she felt born into the company. She recalls spending her days after school at the office with her parents.
“My playground was our company,” says Rice. “That’s really where I grew up.”
She notes that neither parent told her she’d be expected to work in their business. But she remained fascinated, especially as a self-described child whose eyes became “as big as saucers” when celebrities came by.
Lessons From Her Parents
Rice’s mother was a fashion icon who started Ebony Fashion Fair cosmetics. That line remains an integral part of the company’s success.
Rice credits her mother with teaching her how to take pride in everything she did.
“I also realized how very hard my mother worked and disciplined she was … and how many doors she really broke down when she traveled overseas to buy from these very expensive haute couture designers who had never, ever seen a black woman buy these clothes … and had never had a black woman attend these shows. This was really groundbreaking.”
Rice notes that she watched her mother carry herself with great dignity, walking into a room as though she belonged there.
And Rice says her father taught her the importance of being firm, honest, direct and fair with others.
“He was very good at reading people, and being able to get the best out of them. And in turn, the best out of them was also best for him and the company,” describes Rice.
She adds that her father’s belief was that the sale begins when the customer says “no.” In other words, he refused to take “no” for an answer.
Growing The Business
Recently, Rice sold an equity stake in JPC to JPMorgan Chase Special Investments Group. Since her company has been a family-owned, independent business, she says the decision was not taken lightly.
But she believes her company could not expand on its own in today’s media industry. She insists that JPMorgan Chase’s investment will allow Jet, Ebony and her other enterprises to rapidly grow.
“As of our last report, we are gaining in circulation. Our guarantee for Ebony is 1,250,000. We are meeting our guarantee,” says Rice.
As for Jet, she says the magazine is just shy of meeting its guarantee, but it is expanding in social media.
“There’s a sense of authenticity that comes with Ebony. There are very few national media outlets that are majority-African-American owned and really speak to our community with a sense of pride, authority and ownership. That’s what we do,” she says.
She adds that AIDS, health and education are issues that JPC covers with a degree of authority that few other media outlets can match.
In the Face of Potential Competition
Still, other black-focused media are working hard to expand as well. The Huffington Post recently launched a website, “HuffPost Black Voices,” and NBC Universal has its own publication “The Grio.”
But Rice says there’s room for everybody.
“We have to tell our story at Ebony and Jet like no one else can. We have the authenticity; we have the believability. And I think that’s what we have to own.”