when John H. Johnson, the media magnate who created Ebony and Jet, announced he would be folding his more-political magazine Black World after years of it not being profitable, protesters rallied outside the headquarters of Johnson Publications to express their anger with the move.
Johnson, who was in a meeting at the time, invited some of the protesters raising a ruckus outside into his office and into the boardroom. He asked them why there were upset, and once they’d voiced their concerns, he asked for their names. He plugged their names into his computer, which revealed that not one of the protesters present held subscriptions for the publication.
“You can get out of my office now,” he told them.
Robert Johnson’s death last week was followed by sermonizing, and cultural critics heaped praise upon him for helping giving a public face to the black middle class. and although his two most well-known magazines generally eschewed current events and topicality, it’s worth noting that the picture of a disfigured Emmett Till that helped jumpstart the Civil Rights Movement originally ran in Jet.
but the world has changed. where those two magazines were once anomalous, Johnson’s empire grew because he was filling a void, there are now a glut of magazines that perform the ‘journalistic’ function they did. the black middle class is no longer comprised solely of the Cadillacs-and-cotillion set but Ebony is still subtly and steadfastly aimed at that demographic.
most of the subscribers of Ebony and Jet i know are older, and do so out of habit. most people my age are, at best, reverent but completely disinterested in buying it.
what happens now? nearly 60 years after Johnson shrewdly threw his hat into the ring, there are no still no nationally distributed, issues-driven consumer publications aimed at black folks(the well-regarded, award-winning Emerge folded in 2001). there are still no magazines that attempt to deal with the plurality of black life (seriously — her politics aside — what does Condoleezza Rice have to do to get on the cover of Essence?)
though i doubt Johnson Publications will change its editorial philosophy, these are questions that probably need to be addressed, and soon. black people may now have a dozen magazines celebrating the black middle-class, but there’s still no place to turn for hard news on African-American life.