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Publishing Pioneer

August 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Publishing pioneer John Johnson ventured where no one else in the industry had before, bringing portrayals of African-American life into mass market publications. Johnson was born poor in a small Arkansas town in 1918 and moved with his mother to Chicago as a teen.

During World War II, Johnson launched his first magazine, Negro Digest, with a $500 loan secured by his mother’s furniture. Modeled on Readers Digest, it was a journal of black thought. Johnson rolled out his next magazine, the glossy Ebony, in 1945, when blacks still were shut out of much of American culture. It featured profiles of celebrities as well as articles on middle-class life. In a 2003 interview, Johnson explained what he was trying to accomplish.

JOHN JOHNSON: I thought you needed a publication that would emphasize the positive aspects of black life, that would show success, would show achievement and encourage other people to aspire to a better life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Johnson started the pocket-sized news weekly Jet in 1952. Chicago Tribune columnist and NewsHour essayist Clarence Page remembers the role the magazines played in his life.

CLARENCE PAGE: Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I can tell you that Ebony and Jet was part of our household, it was very normal to walk into a black bungalow or an apartment; there would be a copy of Ebony or Jet there on the coffee table or the couch. When I was in the Army, I’d say one out of three of my fellow black GIs had a copy of Jet in our hip pocket.

KWAME HOLMAN: After early struggles to secure advertisers, Johnson steadily built Ebony’s monthly circulation from its first press run of 25,000 to more than 1.6 million last year. Jet’s circulation is about 900,000.

CLARENCE PAGE: Because of his pioneering work now, major advertisers consider it a part of their budget now to reach out to the African-American market, to the Hispanic market. They take a special effort now, but that was all new with Johnson. He presented a black America that was very much like white America, chasing the American dream, buying nice homes, driving nice cars, trying to enter all walks of life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Johnson’s corporate empire would grow to include other media and cosmetics. It’s now valued at half a billion dollars. In 1996, President Clinton awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

JOHN JOHNSON: If I tried to envision Johnson publishing company then as it is today, I simply wouldn’t have tried. I say to young people they should dream small dreams, because if you dream a small dream, it can become a reality.

KWAME HOLMAN: John Johnson died from congestive heart failure in Chicago yesterday. He was 87 years old.