For the Culture: The Story of John H. Johnson and the Birth of Modern Black Media

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Long before Twitter, Instagram, BET, and Blavity, Black Americans had no way to control their narrative as a community. While we still struggle with accurate and diverse media portrayals of Black people, the internet, an increase in Black-owned media, and the growing diversity of media have made significant progress in chipping away at notions of Black people as a monolithic group. However, for a majority of the 20th century Black Americans had little control over their image outside of small, local publications. Absent from major publications were stories of Black people that didn’t feature stories about crime. That was until 1942- the year John H. Johnson founded the Negro Digest, the first magazine of what became the Johnson Publishing Company, the largest Black-owned publishing company in the United States. Through his company, Johnson also started Jet and Ebony Magazine, two staples in the Black community.

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John H. Johnson was originally from Arkansas City, Arkansas. His family moved to Chicago in 1933 in search of better economic opportunities. In Chicago, he attended DuSable High School where he graduated with honors. Having grown up in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression, DuSable High School and Chicago introduced Johnson to the Black middle class. A subtle influence that would later manifest in the pages of Ebony (in an interview Johnson confessed that the first time he saw pictures of a Black wedding or of Black men in tuxedoes was in Ebony Magazine). After graduating from high school, he met his mentor, Harry Pace, president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, one of the biggest Black-owned companies at the time, at a dinner for the National Urban League. After this meeting, Johnson left quite the impression with Harry Pace that landed him a part time job to help him pay for college. Even with a scholarship and money from his part time job at the Supreme Life Insurance Company, college was still unaffordable. However, he didn’t miss out on an education. After two years working at the Supreme Life Insurance company, he became Pace’s assistant and in him, Johnson found a valuable mentor.

One of his responsibilities was reading black newspapers to help his boss keep a pulse on the state of his community. Through his reading, Johnson realized that Black readers wanted regular content mainstream America received. He decided to start a magazine similar to Reader’s Digest, but that was relevant to Black culture. At the time, banks were not always friendly to Black customers. To start the magazine, he borrowed $500 from the Citizen’s Loan Corporation and used his mother’s new furniture as collateral. With Pace’s permission, he used the loan to mail information about an advance subscription to Negro Digest to 20,000 customers of the Supreme Life Insurance. He pitched the advance subscription as a charter subscription to a new magazine. 3,000 people subscribed, which gave him $6,000 to start his new venture.

Negro Digest was immediately well-received. Within a year, Negro Digest had 50,000 subscribers. The magazine gave its readers content they craved. Content that provided optimistic portrayals of Black people in the United States. Johnson was also very quick to use his platform to advocate for social issues. One of the earliest examples of this was through the “If I Were a Negro” column to which he got Eleanor Roosevelt to contribute. The column featured stories from White Americans and their take on life as a Black person in America. Soon after Roosevelt’s contribution, subscriptions doubled. Johnson would continue to use his publications as a platform to discuss social issues.

A few years after experiencing success with Negro Digest, Johnson started Ebony Magazine in 1945. To many of us, the most recent example of disruption to print journalism has been the internet. Seldom talked about, is its predecessor, TV. In the 1940’s and 1950’s television was becoming more accessible to American households. Johnson, realized that people would become accustomed to seeing moving images and color photos. To stay competitive, he decided to launch Ebony Magazine. A vibrant publication that featured many diverse images from the entire spectrum of Black America. In 1951, the Johnson Publishing company launched Jet, a weekly magazine intended to satisfy an increasing demand for more frequent, short-form content.

Ebony and Jet soon became household names, both figuratively and literally. More than just news publications, they were valuable sources of pride for Black households that had copies of Ebony displayed on coffee tables.  Johnson’s publications earned this status through his desire to tell stories that could uplift the morale of his community while not censoring itself from controversy. In fact, Ebony and Jet became the de facto publications of the Civil Rights Movement. General market publications were not always consistent in their coverage and they lacked the context and perspective of Black journalists and photographers.

Johnson would often send both Black and White photographers to cover the demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. would often request photographers to capture different events. The Johnson Publishing Company’s archives contain many of the original photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. Over the years, the Johnson Publishing Company has given its readers a front row seat to history and an insight into the heart of cultural tensions. Other infamous stories to hit the pages of Ebony include the image of Emmett Till in his casket, Harry Belafonte’s interracial marriage to actress Julie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, and most recently, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case.

Over time the Johnson Publishing Company would launch other ventures including short-lived publications such as Hue and Tan Confessions, two cosmetics lines—Fashion Fair and Supreme, and broadcast media. Through the success of the Johnson Publishing Company, John H. Johnson to become the first Black person to appear on the Forbes 400 in 1982. John H. Johnson was one of America’s great entrepreneurial success stories. He was ahead of his time. From Johnson we can learn many lessons in business. Many of his quotes about business are even more relevant today than they were decades ago.

Johnson was always thinking ahead. When he first pitched the idea of Negro Digest, very few people thought it was a good idea. However, he persisted and made good on his hunch. Johnson had the rare ability to see where the market was headed. He recognized that in business, change is a constant and to be successful businesses have to change proactively. He was aware of the increasing rate of innovation and change well before the word “disruption” entered business jargon by way of startup culture. In regards to why he launched Jet Magazine and named it so he said: “In the world today everything is moving along at a faster clip. There is more news and far less time to read it”. He couldn’t have been closer to the truth. He foresaw the influence television would have on media consumption and disrupted his company before the market could have a chance. In some ways Johnson also saw the viability of Black Americans as a consumer group and arguably played a big role in elevating them as consumers. Ads that played off cultural stereotypes wouldn’t cut it for the pages of Ebony or Jet. By showing images of the Black middle class, Johnson introduced corporate America to what would eventually become a highly coveted segment of consumers who wanted respect.

Johnson also showed us that it is possible to achieve profits and fulfill a purpose. In a recent podcast on a Harvard Business School case study on the Johnson Publishing Company, the host recalled a quote from a speech Johnson delivered to Harvard Business School’s Black Student Union. He told them: “You have an opportunity to get an education from one of the best business schools in the world. What are you going to do with it? You take that education you make a lot of money and then with that money, you uplift your community.” Johnson did exactly that. His company created jobs for Black professionals. His publications gave Black America a platform it was missing to tell its stories. As previously mentioned, Ebony and Jet served as a conscious check for both Black America and the general population with their coverage of controversial issues. Inadvertently, Johnson applied today’s business rules decades earlier. During the era of mass media, companies aimed to appeal to as many people as possible, often staying neutral to avoid offending or alienating anyone. The digital age has flipped this rule upside down. It’s no longer about getting the widest audience to like you from afar, it’s about a focused audience who shares your values to love you from up close. This requires living by a set of values that make your identity clear. The Johnson Publishing Company took many public stances at a time when it was risky for most companies to do so, however this risk inspired a rare sense of loyalty from a highly engaged audience that continues today.

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John H. Johnson is arguably one of the most influential entrepreneurs in modern US history. His fortune may not have reached that of the Rockefellers’ but his company’s brand made their mark on popular culture and played an important role in writing a first draft of history. Johnson is a testament to the ability to use business as a platform for good. In closing we leave you with some additional links to learn more about the brains behind one of Black America’s greatest entrepreneurs.

More on John H. Johnson below including a series of Youtube clips about his journey to success.

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