Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival

By SYDNEY EMBER and NICHOLAS FANDOS, New York Times

For the black community in Chicago and elsewhere, Johnson Publishing Company represented a certain kind of hope.

Ebony cover M. ObamaThe company’s magazines, most notably Ebony and Jet, gained prominence during the struggle for civil rights — Jet published graphic photos of the murdered black teenager Emmett Till that helped intensify the movement — and made it their mission to chronicle African-American life.

At a time when much of the media was ignoring black people, or showing them primarily in the context of poverty or crime, Ebony and Jet celebrated their success, featuring stars like Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin on their covers. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the first print publication he granted an interview to was Ebony. 

So when Johnson Publishing, which is based in Chicago, announced a little more than two weeks ago that it had sold Ebony and Jet to a private equity firm in Texas, there was a sense of loss.

“It was a very heartbreaking day,” said Melody Spann-Cooper, the chairwoman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, which owns a Chicago radio station, WVON, aimed at a black audience. “Ebony gave to African-Americans what Life didn’t.”

Jet Magazine printed what mainstream presses would not -- including the photos of teenager Emmett Till's lynched and mutilated body, in its October 1960 issue.

Jet Magazine printed what mainstream presses would not — including the photos of teenager Emmett Till’s lynched and mutilated body, in its October 1960 issue.

Ms. Spann-Cooper’s reaction underscored a deeper concern: As racial issues have once again become a prominent topic in the national conversation, the influence of black-owned media companies on black culture is diminishing.

“Ebony used to be the only thing black folks had and read,” Ms. Spann-Cooper said. “As we became more integrated into society, we had other options.”…

Traditional media companies have struggled for years to adapt to a digital world, but the pressure on black-owned media has been even more acute. Many are smaller and lack the financial resources to compete in an increasingly consolidated media landscape. Advertisers have turned away from black-oriented media, owners say, under the belief that they can now reach minorities in other ways.

Ethel Payne, known as the First Lady of the Black Press, speaks with a soldier in Vietnam. Payne was a city reporter and later Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender in the 1950s and '60s. (By Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, HarperCollins)

Ethel Payne, known as the First Lady of the Black Press, speaks with a soldier in Vietnam. Payne was a city reporter and later Washington correspondent for the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, in the 1950s and ’60s. (By Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, HarperCollins)

Since well before the Civil War, publications and, more recently, radio and television stations owned and operated by African-Americans have provided an important counterweight to mass market media, simultaneously celebrating and shaping black culture — from politics and government to fashion and music.

Johnson Publishing was started in 1942 with a modest $500 loan, and eventually turned into a media empire big enough that in 1982, its founder, John H. Johnson, became the first black person to make Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. When the radio station WVON ran a program in 2007 for Black History Month called the “28 Blacks Who Changed America,” Mr. Johnson, who died in 2005, was No. 7 on the list, behind luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.

WVON Radio in Chicago is aimed at a black audience. Credit Lyndon French for The New York Times

WVON Radio in Chicago is aimed at a black audience. Credit Lyndon French for The New York Times

“If we don’t own our press, we don’t have a platform to speak,” said Leonard Burnett Jr., whose company, the Uptown Ventures Group, owns Uptown Magazineuptlifestyle publication aimed at affluent African-Americans.

Several owners also pointed to another benefit: Their companies hired more minorities. Ms. Spann-Cooper of the Midway Broadcasting Corporation said 90 percent of her employees were African-American. “When we are African-American-owned, the work force looks like us,” she said.

But as financial resources dwindle, black-owned media companies are struggling to maintain their presence. Jet, for instance, became a web-only publication in 2014….

Read the full article here.

For more information, see this exhibit By Us, For Us: The Crucial Role of the Black Press.

More Breaking News here.

A Very Short List of National Black Press Outlets

Ebony Magazine's print cover, August 8, 2015. Ebony was founded by John H. Johnson and has published continuously since 1945. This monthly magazine reaches 11 million readers. Its digest-sized sister magazine, Jet, is also published by Johnson Publishing Company.

Ebony Magazine’s print cover, August 8, 2015. Ebony was founded by John H. Johnson and has published continuously since 1945. This monthly magazine reaches 11 million readers. Its digest-sized sister magazine, Jet, is also published (now online only) by Johnson Publishing Company.

Online

theRoot.com

theGrio.com

Jet Magazine

Ebony (also in print)

Essence (also in print)

In Print

Black News Directory (A listing of dozens of some of the 200+ black publications published in the USA – from the American Legacy Magazine to Hip Hop Weekly.)

National Newspaper Publishers Association (and links to member papers of the NNPA black press in each state)

Black Perspectives Sections within White-Owned/Operated Media

Shadow and Act (on Cinema of the African Diaspora)

Huffington Post Black Voices 

NY Times Black Culture and History section

This Day in Black History: The Chicago Defender was Founded

From the EBONY Pictorial History of Black America

Chicago Defender Building

Chicago Defender Building

The Chicago Defender was founded on this date in 1905. The brainchild of Robert Abbott, it was one of the first African-American newspapers in this country to reach a circulation of more than 100,000.

During the era classified by the historians as the “Great Migration,” 1915 to 1948, The Chicago Defender and Mr. Abbott played a major role. Using its pages, Mr. Abbott was able to influence more than 50,000 African-Americans to leave southern states and come to Chicago. In Chicago the opportunities for employment, education and personal freedom were immensely greater. On February 4, 1956, Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke took over the Chicago Daily Defender.

This publication became the largest African-American daily in the country. Continuing the work of his uncle, he used the Defender to help “improve the quality of life” for all Americans. He was directly involved in the desegregation of the U. S. armed forces. He also worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create jobs in the United States Postal Service for African-Americans.

Read more about the Chicago Defender here.