Johnson Publishing Company Inc.

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Johnson Publishing Company Inc.

founded: 1942

Contact Information:

headquarters: 820 s. michigan avenue
chicago, il 60605 phone: (312)222-9200 fax: (312)222-0918 url:


Johnson Publishing Company is the largest black-owned publishing company in the world. Its books and magazines target readers of color in North America, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean and consciously strive to present a positive picture of black life and people. Johnson Publishing publishes the world's two leading black magazines; EBONY, the firm's flagship magazine, is the world's number one black magazine, while Jet is the world's largest black weekly. The firm's book publishing division has published works on history, cooking, black celebrities and other subjects. Johnson Publishing subsidiaries, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Supreme Beauty Products, produce lines of women's makeup and hair-care products for women and men. As part of the EBONY Fashion Fair, the world's largest traveling fashion show, leading black male and female models visit over 200 cities a year. Johnson Publishing is fully owned and managed by founder John H. Johnson and his family.


Johnson Publishing had sales of $400.4 million in 2000, an increase of about 3.5 percent over 1999. EBONY had a monthly circulation of 1.8 million in 2002, and Jet's weekly circulation was more than one million. Johnson Publishing estimated, however, that some 13 million people the world over see each issue of EBONY, and more than 10 million see each issue of Jet. Approximately 90 percent of the two magazines' readers are black. Reportedly about 50 percent of all black Americans see a Johnson publication every month.


John H. Johnson, visionary founder of Johnson Publishing, has been described as the most successful black entrepreneur of the century. Born in Arkansas, his mother moved with him to Chicago as a child so he would be able to continue school past the eighth grade. Inspired by his mother's deep faith in him, Johnson applied himself vigorously to his studies and in the late 1930s won a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Johnson worried, however, that without a job he would not be able to accept the scholarship. By a stroke of good fortune, he met Harry H. Pace, the president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, then the largest black-owned business in the northern United States. Pace took Johnson under his wing while he attended college part-time and made him his personal assistant at Supreme. The experience was a decisive one. It was Johnson's first exposure to a successful black business. "For the first time," he would later say, "I believed that success was possible for me in business." Twenty years later, in addition to his publishing firm, Johnson ended up owning Supreme Life Insurance.

One of John H. Johnson's jobs when he joined Supreme was compiling a monthly digest of articles about blacks and black affairs from the white press. It gave him the idea of publishing a monthly magazine for black readers comprised of such articles. In November 1942, with $500 in seed money, he launched Negro Digest. Supporting a periodical aimed at a black reader-ship was difficult in the early days. Banks were unwilling to loan money to Johnson because he was black. He hoped to sell shares in the company, but was unable to find investors. He came up with a variety of ideas to bring in cash. He offered lifetime subscriptions for $100. He set up a group of mail order companies that sold a wide variety of items, including wigs, vitamins, and hair care products. The mail order business provided income that supported the magazine while the magazine advertised the mail order companies. It was a business model that worked and Johnson continued to use mutually supporting companies into the twenty-first century.

Negro Digest eventually became BLACK WORLD. It continued publication until 1975 when it was discontinued due to low circulation. In 1945 Johnson established EBONY, the magazine that would make the company's fortune. A glossy magazine based on Life, then very popular among black readers, EBONY presented a mix of news and entertainment that was unprecedented. It featured subjects, writers, and editors, who were almost all black Americans. Within a year, Johnson got his first ad from a national company, Zenith Radio, and John H. Johnson knew his magazine would be a success. Years later when asked why he had succeeded where other black publishers had failed, John H. Johnson said a combination of factors had enabled him to succeed: he was in the right place at the right time, he had learned from the failures of others, and the black population in the United States at the end of World War II was ready for magazines produced with them in mind. In 1951, the same year he founded Jet, John H. Johnson was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year. Despite its successes, Johnson Publishing had to work hard, particularly in its early years, to find advertising dollars to support the magazines. For a long time white companies refused to consider advertising in John-son's magazines. Only the persistence and the persuasiveness of John H. Johnson and his personally trained sales staff were able to break through the barriers to white advertising dollars.

Over the years Johnson Publishing introduced other magazines, including EBONY Jr!, Black Stars, Tan, and EM, all of which were eventually discontinued. However, the company continued to gain influence and respect. In 1972 John H. Johnson was awarded the Henry Johnson Fisher Award as Publisher of Year from the Magazine Publishers of America. In 1973, Johnson founded the Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company, in part to guarantee a source of advertising income. The company's revenues increased from about $30 million in 1972 to about $75 million in 1980 to nearly $250 million in 1990. In 1995 a South African edition of EBONY was launched; it was discontinued in 2000 when a large black middle class was slow to emerge in the country. Over the years Johnson Publishing has also been involved in television and radio broadcasting. EBONY/Jet was a long-time syndicated staple of black television in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2002 the Johnson family remained the sole owner of the company. John H. Johnson, in his ninth decade, remained active as chairman and CEO. His daughter Linda Johnson Rice whom he had trained for over a decade, was poised to succeed him, and assume responsibility for the firm's daily operations. Johnson's wife, Eunice W. Johnson, continued to oversee the EBONY Fashion Fair.


An essential strategy of the Johnson Publishing Company has been the development of businesses, which John H. Johnson calls "miniconglomerates," that create financial synergies. The most basic of these are his magazines and cosmetics firms, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Supreme Beauty Products. Johnson considers his core business to be publishing. The cosmetics firms were established as a hedge against fluctuations in the advertising market, which provided most of EBONY and Jet's financial support. If outside advertising disappears, Fashion Fair and Supreme can provide a source of revenue.

A key policy of EBONY and other Johnson publications is to stress the positive side of black life. The firm is sometimes criticized for ignoring the unpleasant side of the black experience, but justifies its slant on the news by pointing to the overwhelmingly negative portrayal blacks customarily receive in the mainstream media. Johnson sees EBONY and Jet as counterweights to the way other media outlets portray blacks and black issues. In addition, he believes it is important to provide blacks with visible role models—the kind he had when he began working at the Supreme Life Insurance Company—to show them the things they want to achieve are possible. "We always play a positive role," John H. Johnson told the Harvard Business Review, "we are telling people what they can do rather than what they cannot do."


The fact that Johnson Publishing is black-owned and managed with a nearly exclusive black audience has naturally had a profound influence on the company. Bankers refused John H. Johnson loans to start his fledgling firm in the 1940s. Many white companies refused to advertise in Johnson publications in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In the early 1960s when John H. Johnson decided to move the company to a more modern structure in downtown Chicago, he ran up against the same walls of prejudice. He could not find a bank to finance the construction of a skyscraper. Johnson had to save his own money for ten years until he had enough for a smaller building. The firm moved into the new eleven-story headquarters in 1972. The company later boasted that it was the "the first building constructed in Chicago's loop by a black man since Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable built his log cabin along the Chicago River in 1722."


From its birth until the onset of the twenty-first century, Johnson Publishing was under the direct leadership of its founder, John H. Johnson. When his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, expressed an interest in working at the company, he developed a personal course of training for her, designed to groom her for the firm's leadership. In the late 1990s she assumed the positions of COO and President, and began to take over day-to-day management tasks. Rice was responsible for inaugurating the EBONY Web site and securing links to mail order firms such as Spiegel. Johnson Publishing will be influenced by the acumen of Linda Johnson Rice for many years to come.

FAST FACTS: About Johnson Publishing Company Inc.

Ownership: Johnson Publishing is a privately owned company.

Officers: John H. Johnson, Publisher, Chmn., and CEO; Linda Johnson Rice, Pres. and COO; Eunice W. Johnson, Sec., Treas., and Dir. EBONY Fashion Fair

Employees: 2,614

Principal Subsidiary Companies: Johnson Publishing has offices in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In addition to its magazine and book publishing ventures, the firm's subsidiaries, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Supreme Beauty Products, offer a full line of beauty and hair care products for people of color.

Chief Competitors: Johnson Publishing competes with companies in both the publishing and cosmetics industries. Some primary competitors in the field of publishing include Time-Warner AOL, Essence Communications, Advance Publications, Forbes, Hearst, and Larry Flynt Publishing. Rivals in the cosmetics and perfume industry are L'Oreal, Revlon, and Mary Kay.


John H. Johnson founded Fashion Fair Cosmetics after noticing that the models in the EBONY Fashion Fair had to mix their own makeup because the products sold by mainstream cosmetics companies weren't well matched to the skin tones of blacks. The company's subsidiary, Supreme Beauty Products, developed two lines of hair care products for blacks: Duke hair care for men, and Raveen for women. In 2002, Johnson's personal care items were sold in over 2500 stores worldwide. Johnson Publishing's Book Division published a number of books by black authors and on subjects of interest to blacks. Titles published in 2002 were Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett Jr., the executive editor of EBONY and Special Moments in African-American History 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet Jr.


Johnson Publishing is a major contributor to national black causes, as well as various community groups, including YMCA, Urban League, NAACP and the United Negro College Fund. EBONY Fashion Fair, the largest traveling fashion show in the United States, visits some 200 cities every year to raise money for local causes. In 2001 the Fashion Fair donated over $2 million to charity.


EBONY and Jet are distributed in the United States, Canada, nations in Africa, the United Kingdom, and in the Caribbean. Fashion Fair Cosmetics is one of the world's leading lines of makeup for people of color. It is sold in Canada, Africa, England, France, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Virgin Islands.

CHRONOLOGY: Key Dates for Johnson Publishing Company Inc.


Johnson Publishing is founded in Chicago, Illinois


EBONY is founded


EBONY gets its first advertising from a national company


Jet is founded


John H. Johnson is named an Outstanding Young Man of the Year


John H. Johnson was awarded the Henry Johnson Fisher Award: Publisher of Year by the Magazine Publishers of America


EBONY Jr! is founded


Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company is founded


Black World (formerly Negro Digest) is discontinued


EBONY South Africa is founded


EBONY South Africa is discontinued


With the idea in mind for Negro Digest, a new magazine for and about blacks, 24-year-old John H. Johnson set out looking for backers. Because he was black, none of the banks Johnson approached would consider giving him a loan. As a last resort, he pawned his mother's furniture for $500. That was the seed that eventually grew into a multi-million dollar business. Insecure about what the future held, when Johnson started Negro Digest he did not resign, but took a leave of absence from the Supreme Life Insurance Company. This allowed him the option of returning to Supreme if things didn't work out with the magazine. Johnson didn't formally end the leave of absence until some 20 years later—when he bought Supreme himself.


Johnson Publishing has grown from 245 employees in 1972 to more than 2,600 in 2002. In the best tradition of the family business—even one as large as Johnson Publishing—John H. Johnson makes it a point to personally take part in interviewing every potential employee for his Chicago headquarters. Johnson's employment policy is devised to provide a setting in which promising black business talent can rise above the glass ceiling imposed by white companies. Johnson strives to provide its employees with highly competitive salaries and benefits packages. In return, John H. Johnson demands their best work.



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Cohen, Roger. "Black Media Giant's Fire Still Burns." New York Times, 19 November 1990.

Dingle, Derek T. "Doing Business John Johnson's Way." Black Enterprise, June 1987.

——. "Lessons From the Top." Black Enterprise, May 1999.

"EBONY Interview with John H. Johnson." EBONY, November 1985.

"'Failure is a word I don't accept': An Interview with John H. Johnson." Harvard Business Review, March-April 1976.

Gottschalk, Mary. "The Body is the Star of this Year's Ebony Fashion Fair."Seattle Times, 22 April 1992.

Higgins, Sean. "Publisher Soared Into History." Investor's Business Daily, 25 January 2002.

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Whitaker, Charles. "The Most Successful of All." N'DIGO, March 1999.

For additional industry research:

Investigate companies by their Standard Industrial Classification Codes, also known as SICs. Johnson Publishing Company Inc.'s primary SIC is:

3721 Periodicals Publishing & Printing

Also investigate companies by their North American Industrial Classification System codes, also known as NAICS codes. Johnson Publishing Company Inc.'s primary NAICS code is:

511120 Periodical Publishers

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Johnson Publishing Company Inc.