Iconic Johnson Publishing Company Files for Bankruptcy

Johnson Publishing Company, which founded Ebony and Jet magazines, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Tuesday, April 9. The publishing company covered Black culture and life for decades, becoming one of America’s most successful Black-owned businesses. In a statement, Johnson Publishing Company said it filed for bankruptcy after several unsuccessful attempts to restructure, obtain alternative financing, and sell the company.

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company said. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

The brand noted that a “confluence of adverse events and factors outside of the company’s control” led to Tuesday’s filing. It added that it was “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.”

According to The Washington Post, Johnson Publishing Company listed assets of between $10 million and $50 million in filing for liquidation. It also listed the same range for its liabilities and said it had more than 200 creditors. Johnson Publishing Company sold Ebony and Jet magazines in 2016. Ebony Media Operations, LLC (EMO), which owns both magazines, confirmed that the publications would not be affected by the bankruptcy filing. After selling the two publications, Johnson Publishing Company focused on its cosmetics division and archives, The Washington Post reported.

The company got its start when founder John H. Johnson used a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture, The Chicago Sun-Times reported. Ebony began publishing in November 1945 and promised “to mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood,” the Sun-Times continued. Jet, now an online-only publication, followed six years later in 1951.

Johnson initially opted to steer clear of covering political issues, Kinohi Nishikawa, a professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University told The Washington Post. That changed in 1955, following the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.

“The murder of Till was so egregious, and it connected Johnson’s home base of Chicago to what was going on in the South in such a powerful way,” Nishikawa said. “He couldn’t turn away from it.” Jet responded to a request by Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, to demonstrate what had been done to her son. The teen was abducted, tortured, and murdered after allegedly offending a white woman. The magazine published a photo of the boy’s body in his coffin.

The two magazines inspired generations of young Black people, including former President Barack Obama. “It gave you a sense that strong, capable Black men were out there and you didn’t have to assume that your fate was automatically working in some menial job or getting involved in a crime,” Obama said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Circulation for the publications began to drop during the 1990s when other media companies started reporting on Black culture. Johnson died in 2005 at the age of 87; his funeral was attended by 2,000 mourners, including former President Bill Clinton.

“While the process is now in the hands of a Chapter 7 trustee, Johnson Publishing Company is grateful for its 77 years of existence, and the unwavering loyalty, dedication, and commitment of its employees, vendors, and customers,” the publishing company said. “The incredible legacy and impact of Johnson Publishing Company will always be honored and hold a proud place in the African American experience.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.