Ebony Then, Now and Later

It’s likely that many of those who eulogized John H. Johnson (1918-2005) as the epitome of a Race Man upon his passing last month had no idea how right they were. His accomplishments as the publisher of Ebony and Jet, and the visionary behind a US$500 million conglomerate dedicated to celebrating and serving the broad African-American market, are sufficiently significant, historic, and uplifting to earn the lofty praise. But an application of the Kevin Bacon Game reveals that Johnson was only two degrees of separation removed from one of the greatest Race Men of them all.

Harry H. Pace (1884-1943), a graduate of Atlanta University and instructor at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, answered a call from one of his former professors, the esteemed and already legendary W.E.B. DuBois, to come to Memphis and help DuBois start a magazine for blacks. Moon Illustrated Weekly would only last a few issues, but it helped cement a bond between mentor and former student. It also gave Pace entrée into Memphis’ black business community, and he developed contacts that would prove quite helpful down the line.

The Pace-DuBois connection would surface several times over the next decade-plus. After the demise of Moon, Pace took another teaching gig at Lincoln University in Missouri, but returned to Memphis after a year to take over a struggling bank. Four years later, in 1912, Pace moved back to Atlanta for his first venture in the insurance industry, spurning DuBois’ offer to help him with another magazine, The Crisis (the print media voice of the NAACP, which DuBois helped found in 1909; The Crisis still publishes today).

Pace acted as the brains behind the insurance operation, bailing it out of dire financial straits more than once. By 1920, he had wearied of the hassles and relocated to New York City, where he rejoined an associate from Memphis, songwriter W.C. Handy (who had moved there in 1917). There, the two administered Pace and Handy Music Company, which had been publishing groundbreaking blues songs like Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1914), for close to 10 years. Handy’s tunes were starting to make waves among NYC performers, and Pace decided the time was right to join the fun.

Said fun really started later in 1920, with the Okeh Phonograph Company’s release of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”. Smith was the first black to record a blues song (and the first black woman to record anything at all), and “Crazy Blues”, her second effort, was a huge hit. Immediately, Pace perceived an opportunity to not just get in on the ground floor of something big, but also have a social impact, at that. Blacks hadn’t really been marketed to as music consumers by the reigning labels of the day, and lest this blues craze, with its saucy lyrics and ribald performances, get totally out of hand, Pace decided (with help from DuBois and others) that the time was right to re-level the playing field.

Thus was the Pace Phonograph Company established in 1921. Pace took two staffers from the publishing company, arranger William Grant Still and pianist/song plugger Fletcher Henderson, to the new company with him (Handy did not join the venture). DuBois was on the company’s board of directors. The label itself would be called Black Swan Records, named after a legendary black concert singer of the late 1800s, and promoted its products as “The Only Genuine Colored Record – Others Are Only Passing for Colored.”

In its brief history, Black Swan recorded several classical and light vocal performances by black artists, but its bread-and-butter was the new blues music. Its first hit launched Ethel Waters’ legendary career (“Down Home Blues”, 1921), and greats such as Alberta Hunter and James P. Johnson issued music on the label early on in their careers. But financial woes and competition from other labels took their toll on Black Swan, and Pace sold the assets to his main competitor, Paramount Records, in 1924.

After Black Swan, Pace returned to the insurance industry, and by the 1930s had helped build Chicago’s Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company into one of the country’s leading black insurers. In 1936, Pace was the main speaker at an Urban League dinner. Afterwards, he chatted with a promising Chicago high school student named John H. Johnson. Pace ended up giving Johnson a part-time job at Supreme Liberty while Johnson attended the University of Chicago. Johnson dropped out of school after two years and signed on full-time at the insurance company. By then, Pace had started a magazine for the company’s customers, The Guardian, and Johnson served as Pace’s assistant.

In 1942, Pace asked Johnson to start a clipping file of news articles about blacks and black issues, some of which ended up in the Guardian. But Johnson had broader ideas, specifically, a black version of Reader’s Digest. He launched Negro Digest in late 1942, and its modest success was enough for him to leave Pace’s employ the next year. Two years after that, in 1945, Johnson launched Ebony.

So there you have it: from DuBois, to Harry Pace, to John H. Johnson. The shared legacy is a straight line connecting love and pride for their people, committed entrepreneurship, and a sense of the potential of mass communications to shape how the world, both black and white, perceives black life. Obviously, we have seen this play out in the marvelous arc of Johnson’s career. Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) was not only the most important black-owned business of the 20th Century, but also one of the most important companies of any stripe in the history of American media.

And it remains a significant entity today, 60 years after its start. Unfortunately, as so often happens in our busy life and times, it took the death of the founder to remind us of that minor detail.

In honor of Johnson’s passing, I did something I don’t think I’d ever done as an adult. I bought a copy of Ebony.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t have an understanding about Ebony’s place in black life. My parents subscribed to Ebony for years, and I grew up seeing our stars and heroes up close and person, in a manner that wasn’t available anywhere else — with dignity and celebration. But as I grew up in the post-civil rights era and started reading various other publications, my taste for in-depth editorial coverage and stylish writing broadened (just as more blacks found opportunities to practice such trades beyond the black press). Further, I’d developed role models, historical knowledge, and positive self-esteem sufficient enough to not need Ebony’s monthly booster shot of good news and heroic images.

Ebony didn’t really speak to me, and hadn’t in years. Not than any other single publication or media outlet did, or could. I took, and still take, bits and pieces of knowledge, entertainment and diversion, from all over the map; from Vibe to Reason, from Tavis Smiley to The Daily Show. But there was never a compelling reason to include Ebony in my already-saturated media diet (in part because I’ve never had much of a vicarious interest in the private lives of celebrities, one of Ebony’s stocks-in-trade). Ebony hasn’t been the source of anything authoritative I wanted to read, be it historical or contemporary, certainly not of any subject I couldn’t find out about another way, especially with the Internet.

But that’s me talking from the perspective of a generation that, ironically, owes a lot of its identity to Ebony. Our parents and grandparents were Ebony’s first audience, the striving blacks who wanted a better life for themselves and their children. By any measure, they succeeded, and Ebony was with them every step of the way. They, and Ebony, succeeded so well that, in fact, it’s possible for folks like me to seek worlds that weren’t even on black folks’ maps when John Johnson stepped out on faith 60 years ago.

So returning to Ebony today is like going to a family reunion. For many folks, Ebony still serves its primary function as Official Proclaimer of All That Is Uplifting, Successful and Good about Black People – and that is a noble, important and (sadly) still necessary function. But for me, it’s media as comfort food.

Even though Ebony had a redesign a couple of years back, it still looks to me pretty much as it did when I was a kid. There was a smiling celebrity on the cover (actress Holly Robinson Peete with new baby in tow, their smiling faces obscuring the familiar white-block-letters-on-red-rectangular-background logo). There were short write-ups of blacks that had done big things in the business world. There were advice columns, corny cartoons, and recipes. There were human interest stories — this issue carried the account of triplets who passed the Mississippi bar together — and a special advertorial section on black colleges.

I took note of the ads for a number of reasons. One, ad pages dictate how much money a publication is likely to be earning. By that measure, Ebony appears healthy enough. General Motors (the back cover and the inside front cover, in addition to other spreads) and Ford had multiple representation, and major companies like Verizon (inside back cover), American Airlines, and McDonald’s were also in the house. These companies and others learned long ago the first lesson of marketing to black people, a lesson Johnson himself helped craft: you’ve got to reach us in outlets that are targeted to us. An ad in the morning daily paper doesn’t tell black folks that you expressly care about their patronage, but an ad in the weekly black paper does, even if more black people actually see the ad in the daily.

There were also a ton of ads that would be of interest only to women: makeup; hair care; health products; household cleaners (Proctor & Gamble has supported black media for years). Ads are clues as to whom advertisers think is reading the product, and whom the product may be targeting. The ad mix in this issue leads me to presume that Ebony’s readership is largely female, head-of-household, and interested in things that make their daily life and household duties easier, but who also like to primp and pamper themselves when the work is over. That’s a nice market segment to target, but I suspect it’s hardly representative of the larger market of print media-consuming blacks.

As for the editorial content, it was nice to get caught up on the state of black colleges, even if the package was chock-a-block with smiling administrators, and students and football teams, instead of anything on, say, the actual state of black colleges. And it was nice to hear the story about how Peete entered labor with her baby at an awards show, if that’s the sort of fare you like. Ebony has never strayed from that basic tone: positive stories of black achievement. Such racial boosterism, all too necessary back in the days of Jim Crow, gave rise over time to the charge that the magazine has been editorially MIA on the issues actually driving black achievement, things like politics and economics. Now that such coverage is available elsewhere (though still not nearly enough in mainstream news media), it’s not so big a deal to complain that it isn’t in Ebony.

No entity can be all things to all people in its realm, of course, and that applies especially to magazines targeting an underserved market segment. Johnson chose one path and stuck to it, and to great social and financial success. Like the endearing uncle who tells the same hoary stories every time the clan gets together, folks of my mindset accept Ebony for what it is, rather than stab at it for what it isn’t. We value what it’s meant to us all these years; as we seek what interests us elsewhere, we do so from a foundation Ebony helped set.

After all 242 pages, from the spread on Muhammad Ali’s former residence to the back-page tribute to the late Luther Vandross, there was nothing in this issue that made me decide to add Ebony to my regular media consumption. I’m not saying it doesn’t have a place in the world or the black marketplace, but rather that it doesn’t have the same place in my world that it once did. I might thumb through a copy while waiting at the barbershop — if Esquire or Men’s Fitness or Black Enterprise or some other title don’t catch my eye, first. Other magazines I read to learn about what’s going on in the world, in a particular industry, or just to take in a well-told tale. I peruse Ebony to make sure that the kinfolk are all healthy and doing fine.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who hasn’t been picking up Ebony lately. Circulation over the first six months of 2005 was down 16 percent from the same period last year (1.5 million copies, compared to 1.8 million in 2004). This came as circulation for magazines that cater to the ceaseless desire for celebrity dirt increased. Say what you will about Ebony’s coverage of black stars over the years, but “snarky” and “exploitative”, which is apparently how most folks like their celebrity coverage nowadays, will never come up in such a conversation. Expect those circulation numbers to pick up in the fall, between the coverage of Ebony’s 60th anniversary and a tribute to Johnson’s massive legacy. Then the real work of Linda Johnson Rice, Johnson’s daughter and JPC president/CEO, and others invested in Ebony’s future will begin.

Earlier this summer, Ebony announced a joint licensing agreement with multicultural promotions agency TurnerPatterson to extend the Ebony brand into other arenas. Look for the logo to find its way onto coffee mugs and gift items for starters, and other ventures down the line. Ebony isn’t the first magazine to try this — it helps deepen the bond between the reader and the brand. On the one hand, you might think that a magazine that has been a staple of black life since World War II would need little such bond deepening. And it’s not like JPC hasn’t extended the Ebony brand before, what with a traveling fashion show called the Ebony Fashion Fair and other ventures. But new times call for new measures, and this seems to be a start.

One such new measure might not be all that new at all: www.ebony.com. There’s nothing more there than a regurgitation of the hard-copy content. There’s no search figure in case you missed that cover story on singer Toni Braxton in the previous issue. And though all the Johnson obituaries made note of Jet’s 1955 coverage of the murder of Emmett Till, you won’t be able to go to Jet’s online archive to find it, either as free or paid content — there isn’t one.

That’s shortsighted, at best, in this day and age. The source of all that brand goodwill Ebony hopes to capitalize on through licensing arrangements is its 60 years of editorial coverage, from the essays on black history to the photo shoots of lavish homes. There may not be a lot of Pulitzer Prize-level journalism in those pages, but there is information no one else had. There is proof that we had movie stars way before Halle Berry, that we had political leaders way before Jesse Jackson, and that black consumers valued top-shelf brands way before P. Diddy and friends started passing the Courvoisier. There are images and stories of us making history down South, overseas, and in outer space. Ebony’s back pages constitute something of a popular history of black America, and carry countless gems for students, historians, and curious Googlers. The digital divide may still exist for some older readers, but the rest of us would benefit immeasurably from an Ebony online presence ramped up for the 21st Century.

If the circulation downturn becomes a trend and not a blip, that would be cause for major concern. But if the ship rights itself and people think that nothing further need be done, that would signal a lost opportunity. Death, it must be said, can be good for business — just ask Elvis, or Marilyn, or Tupac. Johnson’s passing brought forth more attention paid to Ebony than at any time I can recall since my childhood. From overflowing tributes to open questions about why more media outlets didn’t cover his death as extensively as they did ABC News anchor Peter Jennings’ the day before (note to self: don’t die right after a beloved TV personality goes, unless you become one yourself), Ebony has gotten mucho coverage, some of it reaching people who might not have even known it existed — or people like me, who valued it once upon a time but not much lately. For the time being, Ebony has its foot in the door of our short attention span. What will happen once the mourning fades?

My guess is that Ebony will continue to be Ebony, with some minor tweaking here and there but nothing particularly drastic. That might be good enough for now. But the car buyers, parents, and consumers of tomorrow don’t have the same attachment to Ebony that Johnson’s generation did, and as the magazine now stands they probably won’t develop one, even if the logo gets sprayed on everything that stands still (although event sponsorship, another possible direction of the licensing program, may be more effective in reaching younger adult audiences than cool gear). Ebony’s content has long been criticized by many as lightweight, but for many years it was the only game in town if you wanted to read about black folks. Today it’s still the biggest game, but it’s not the only game, and younger black consumers of media understand that far better than their elders do.

How ironic it is, then, that Johnson and Jennings will forever be linked by the timing of their deaths. For Ebony is very much like the network evening news: a staple of life for generations when media outlets were fewer, and still bigger than all the other sources for the content they feature. But signs of erosion are beginning to show, the great leaders have done their work and moved on, and now it’s time for the new stewards of the franchises to chart a course that responds to the modern marketplace and landscape, and begins to anticipate what tomorrow’s might look like.

Ebony’s brand extensions will likely find some success with current readers, but potential future readers will need more than Ebony-colored swag to seal the deal. They’ll need a magazine that hears their voices, shares their concerns, and adds information and entertainment value to their media mix. The positive affirmation mission will always be important, but we’ve moved far from the day when a black starring in sports or a movie was a novelty (and wasn’t written up somewhere else). Ebony will have to strike the right balance between its basic vision, its meaning to 60 years’ worth of readers, and what can best serve and address the hopes and dreams of younger generations of aspiring black folk as they move into and through adulthood in an increasingly complicated world. Cover stories about celebrities still sell magazines, so don’t expect that focus to change a lot. It’s what Ebony does with the rest of its editorial real estate, both in print and online, that will determine its viability in the future.

If the New York Times is America’s paper of record, and the network news broadcasts are our television of record, then for the last 60 years Ebony has been black America’s magazine of record. In the weeks and months to come, I hope that the people behind Ebony consider that legacy, and ask themselves what it should mean to be black America’s magazine of record 100 years after John H. Johnson’s mentor first got a taste of the publishing business.

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