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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

John H. Johnson: 1918-2005

A publishing pioneer Businessman `put a human face on black people,' altered media landscape and reached an untapped market By Charles Storch and Barbara Sherlock, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Josh Noel contributed to this article Published August 9, 2005 John H. Johnson was known as the man who turned Ebony into gold.Ebony magazine became the cornerstone of Johnson Publishing Co., a privately held publishing, cosmetics, television production and fashion firm based in Chicago. It became one of the nation's largest black-owned businesses; Black Enterprise magazine recently ranked it fifth among industrial and service firms and put its annual revenues at about $500 million. And its founder and owner came to be considered one of the nation's most influential and honored African-American businessmen.Johnson, 87, a longtime Chicagoan, died of heart failure Monday in Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown.His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who assumed the post of chief executive officer from her father in 2002, said, "He was the greatest salesman and CEO I have ever known, but he was also a father, friend and mentor with a great sense of humor who never stopped climbing mountains and dreaming dreams."Friends said his life was more inspirational than any of the cover stories in Ebony or Jet, his other major magazine. A modest beginning proved to be no obstacle, and his life was filled with achievements and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.He once said, "I don't see, never did see, failure as an option."U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said his friend of almost 45 years was "bigger than life," yet was "solid, down to earth, never got carried away with what he had accomplished."Rev. Jesse Jackson had a summer job with Johnson 40 years ago selling Ebony and Jet and later wrote for Negro Digest. He said Johnson's "lasting contribution was he put a human face on black people," who until then had been mostly ignored or portrayed degradingly in mainstream media.He said Johnson "gave us our first mirror to see ourselves as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty."U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said: "For over 60 years, he told our stories of triumph and success that other media outlets often chose to ignore. By providing a voice for African-Americans to tell their story, he was able to provide his readers with words, pictures and an archive of our history."Mayor Richard M. Daley said Johnson's magazines "helped corporate America realize the vast purchasing power of the African-American consumer.""He virtually invented the black consumer market," said Lerone Bennett Jr., Ebony executive editor emeritus. "He was the first publisher I know of who went to Madison Avenue and persuaded them that they had to address the African-American market and use African-American markets. It paid off."From rags to richesIn the 1980s, Johnson's name appeared on lists of the wealthiest Americans. He liked to remind people that, back in the 1930s in Chicago, his family made only the welfare list.Born in Arkansas City, Ark., on Jan. 19, 1918, Johnson moved to Chicago with his widowed mother in 1933. He enrolled in DuSable High School, and after graduating in 1936, he went to work part time as an office worker at the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Co.At Supreme Life, Johnson culled newspapers and magazines to prepare a digest of events in the black community for Harry Pace, Supreme Life's president. By 1942, Johnson had the idea of condensing such articles into a monthly magazine, a black version of Reader's Digest to be called Negro Digest (and later Black World before it was discontinued in 1976).His mother borrowed $500 against her furniture, and Johnson had money to mail a charter subscription offer for the magazine to Supreme Life customers. With 3,000 people responding and each sending $2, he had funds for the first issue of Negro Digest, which he published with the aid of his wife, Eunice, whom he had married in 1941.To convince a Chicago distributor there was demand for such a magazine, Johnson had friends go around the South Side and ask for Negro Digest. When the distributor supplied copies to dealers, Johnson paid his friends to buy most of the copies. Johnson then resold the copies to the distributor when dealers reordered.He took the same tactic to other cities and, within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies a month.But Johnson's breakthrough came in November 1945, with the first issue of Ebony, a slick-paper magazine modeled on Life."I thought my way out of poverty," Johnson once said. "Ebony was my passport."Ebony, heavy with success stories of blacks, was accepted more readily by readers than advertisers. Johnson personally sold Eugene McDonald, head of Zenith Radio Corp., on the magazine. After Zenith, other corporations slowly joined the ranks of Ebony advertisers.Johnson had difficulty buying as well as selling. In 1949, he offered $60,000 for a South Side funeral parlor that he planned to convert into his first headquarters. But the white owners wouldn't sell to a black man.As Johnson told the story, he had a white lawyer express interest in buying the parlor. When the lawyer told the owner that he wanted his maintenance man to check the building, Johnson showed up in overalls and inspected the premises. His lawyer then bought the building for $52,000."If I had to do it over again, I would," Johnson told a reporter decades later. "I stooped all the time to get what I wanted."Getting what he wanted became much easier for Johnson with the growing success of Ebony, whose paid circulation was about 1.7 million in 2004.His publishing activities expanded to such magazines as Jet, with circulation now at 927,402, and Ebony Jr., and to books.Pushed civil rights movementFour years after it was founded, Jet caused a sensation when in September 1955 it published an open-coffin picture of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan beaten to death by white men in Mississippi and dumped in a river. The boy's death and the picture of his mutilated face galvanized the civil rights movement.Johnson would later write that some on the Jet staff were squeamish about using the Till funeral photographs."I had reservations, too, but I decided finally that if it happened, it was our responsibility to print it and let the world experience man's inhumanity to man."In 1973 he established Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a line of beauty aids and a sponsor of a large touring fashion show. He formerly owned three radio stations.Longtime friend James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League, noted that Johnson was the first African-American businessman to have his own building on Michigan Avenue. The 11-story structure at 820 S. Michigan Ave. has been the firm's headquarters since December 1971.Johnson served on numerous advisory commissions on the local, state and federal levels. He served on the boards of some major corporations and educational, cultural and philanthropic organizations. Though he attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, he didn't complete his college education, but he would later be awarded 31 honorary doctoral degrees and many honors for his business and humanitarian activities.He gave generously to many causes, including $4 million to Howard University in Washington, which named its communications school after him.Johnson, like other powerful men, had his detractors. Some former employees said he was a tough, hard-driven boss. He was once quoted as saying--or joking, as he offered later in his defense--that he would push over a 10-story building on a baby if it meant stopping a threat to his business.Some blacks complained that Ebony was too oriented toward the middle-class and skirted hard news in favor of inspirational, made-it-up-the-ladder success stories. Johnson once acknowledged that "we don't rush to print critical things about black leaders--even if it's true."Jackson said Johnson "wanted to tell good-news stories. That was his niche."Johnson, who retained the titles of chairman and publisher until his death, made Johnson Publishing a family business. His mother, Gertrude, was a vice president of the firm until her death in 1977; her office remains as she left it. His wife is secretary-treasurer. His daughter, Linda, held several positions before she became CEO.Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include a granddaughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.- - - EBONY Founded: In 1945 as a general interest monthly for African-Americans.2004 circulation: 1.7 million JET Founded: In 1951 as a weekly news publication with a black perspective2004 circulation: 927,402 FASHION FAIR COSMETICS Founded: In 1973, named after a series of fashion shows produced by Johnson's wife,


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