Is There a Next Page for ‘Ebony’?

The iconic magazine hits the ropes.

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Four years ago, at the funeral of Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson, then-Sen. Barack Obama remembered the man who almost single-handedly built the economic foundation for black-audience periodicals.  

Through his magazines, Obama told the more than 2,000 mourners, “he shared countless news, large and small, that had been ignored for so long.”  

Tavis Smiley also spoke about the legendary Johnson. “It never occurred to me to sell,” Smiley recalled Johnson saying to him. And although the founder had died, Smiley rejoiced that Johnson Publishing Co. was “still No. 1, and still 100 percent black-owned.” 

It may not be for much longer. Newsweek reported recently that John Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, the chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing, is seeking a buyer, investor or buyout firm to take over Ebony. (Newsweek said it's unclear whether the company's other properties, including Jet, would be part of a possible sale.) Now it falls to publishers, academics and journalists to debate what went wrong with the company, which was founded in 1945, and what the future holds. (To add to publishing industry woes, it was announced last week that the print version of West Coast-based music publication URB magazine was going on hiatus.)  

Many industry watchers say they are disappointed with the lack of innovation at the company, failure to invest more in Ebonyjet.com, and in general, the absence of strong and nimble leadership needed to keep pace with the 21st century.

Ebony is “a brand that’s lost its value and cachet,” says Charles Whitaker, a former Ebony editor and now a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who led a 2007 study of the magazine. “No one was sure what the content of Ebony is and what it stood for,” Whitaker says. “And the ‘no one’ included advertisers. People who got it just felt a sense of loyalty.” 

Operations at Johnson Publishing, like at so many mainstream and niche publishing companies, have been in a tumultuous state over the past few years. Nearly a year after her father died, Rice hired an editorial director, Bryan Monroe, a former executive at the now-defunct Knight Ridder newspaper chain. 

Monroe hired several journalists away from the mainstream media, and, in the process alienated some existing employees, some of whom took buyouts. Under MonroeEbony published a lavish issue on the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, took a stand against the N-word and featured eight different covers for its August 2008 issue: “The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time.” Partly because of Rice’s ties to fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama, Ebony scored the first postelection interview with the president-elect, though it was not published until Obama had granted other interviews. 

Despite these attempts toward a new relevance, one staffer who prefers to remain anonymous says, “Ebony was still seen as a magazine for your grandparents or parents.” And rising expenditures for the new talent, travel and the mostly staff-photographed Ebony covers apparently were not matched by sufficient increases in newsstand sales and advertising revenue. Monroe resigned in April.