Johnson Publishing and Ebony layoffs suggest end of Chicago era – Marketing/media News

on May8

8 May 2017 | 10:30 am

A series of rapid-fire developments at Johnson Publishing and its former Ebony outlet suggest the end of the black media empire, at least in Chicago.

CEO Desiree Rogers resigned last week, saying she would hand leadership of the company’s remaining cosmetics business to Chairman Linda Johnson Rice, who a day earlier cut most of the Chicago jobs at the former publishing enterprise. Johnson Rice also reclaimed leadership of her family’s magazine business in March, despite its sale last year.

Once a bulwark of black business in Chicago and the preeminent African-American magazine publisher, the company was built by Johnson Rice’s father, John Johnson, the grandson of slaves who moved with his family from Arkansas to the segregated city in the 1930s. With their Ebony and Jet magazines, the patriarch and his wife, Eunice Walker Johnson, created a brand, along with their Fashion Fair cosmetics, that were centerpieces of African-American life, before the business’s slow decline in recent years in the face of industry headwinds.

Ebony debuted in 1945, a few years after Johnson founded his publishing house in 1942, and it was followed by its weekly sister Jet in 1951.

“Sadly, it was expected, but it’s still devastating,” said Ron Childs, a former associate editor of Ebony Man, a magazine discontinued in the 1990s. “It’s just the end of a legacy in Chicago’s history of African-American publishing.”

The publisher has documented the African-American experience, including chronicling the civil rights movement and key happenings for the community in the latter half of the 20th century.

Fashion Fair, the remaining Johnson Publishing cosmetics brand that Rogers had been leading, has also shrunk in recent years, with the make-up available at fewer department store counters.

Among the Chicago Ebony staff dismissed on Friday were Editor-in-Chief Kyra Kyles and Managing Editor Kathy Chaney.

“We’ve done the most with the least during my six-year tenure, and I’ve deeply enjoyed getting to know you all,” Kyles said in a note to co-workers May 4 after the company’s employee cuts. “I want you to know that what has happened today has NOTHING to do with anyone’s individual talents and dedication. For those who remain with the company, I am rooting for you to win.”

Michael Gibson, chairman of the Texas investment firm, CVG Group, which bought the magazines last year and renamed the operation Ebony Media, told the Chicago Tribune that the remaining staff would be led by a Los Angeles-based editor, Tracey Ferguson, who joined Jet in February. She is the latest in a list of several new top editors in the past five years.

Ebony cut 10 of its 35 employees last week, Gibson told the Tribune. Aside from Chicago and Los Angeles, some publishing employees had also worked in New York.

Johnson Publishing isn’t the only Chicago print publisher to buckle in recent years under increasing competition from digital products. The offices of Playboy magazine, also formerly headquartered in Chicago, left the city for Los Angeles in 2012. Print newspapers and magazines alike have struggled to pay for their legacy printing infrastructures as readers and advertisers slip away to digital alternatives.

The publisher grappled this year with making home deliveries of Ebony to subscribers—never a welcome development for advertisers who count on a certain number of readers. Plus, freelancers recently prompted a social media firestorm about the company not paying for their services.

Childs listed other significant events that preceded last week’s tumult, including the 2010 sale of the South Michigan Avenue building—once a sign of the founder’s success—and the sale last year of the magazines to CVG Group, which at the time said it would keep the headquarters in Chicago.

There was also the sale of a minority stake to JP Morgan Chase in 2011, the end of Jet’s print edition in 2014, and a series of job cuts in recent years that whittled down the staff. For the fewer than 10 remaining Chicago editorial and business employees, there’s a lot of confusion, according to a source familiar with the situation. Since moving out of the Johnson Publishing offices they shared with Fashion Fair staff, they have been working from a temporary space.

The latest development “is stunning for the city,” said Charles Whitaker, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School and a former Ebony magazine editor.

As for the magazine’s roots, John Johnson “would say this could only have happened in Chicago” where he found a burgeoning group of middle-class black entrepreneurs and intellectuals eager to read his publications and support his business.

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