Monday, July 04, 2016

Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival
New York Times
JULY 2, 2016

For the black community in Chicago and elsewhere, Johnson Publishing Company represented a certain kind of hope.

The company’s magazines, most notably Ebony and Jet, gained prominence during the struggle for civil rights — Jet published graphic photos of the murdered black teenager Emmett Till that helped intensify the movement — and made it their mission to chronicle African-American life.

At a time when much of the media was ignoring black people, or showing them primarily in the context of poverty or crime, Ebony and Jet celebrated their success, featuring stars like Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin on their covers. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the first print publication he granted an interview to was Ebony.

So when Johnson Publishing, which is based in Chicago, announced a little more than two weeks ago that it had sold Ebony and Jet to a private equity firm in Texas, there was a sense of loss.

“It was a very heartbreaking day,” said Melody Spann-Cooper, the chairwoman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, which owns a Chicago radio station, WVON, aimed at a black audience. “Ebony gave to African-Americans what Life didn’t.”

Ms. Spann-Cooper’s reaction underscored a deeper concern: As racial issues have once again become a prominent topic in the national conversation, the influence of black-owned media companies on black culture is diminishing.

“Ebony used to be the only thing black folks had and read,” Ms. Spann-Cooper said. “As we became more integrated into society, we had other options.”

To that end, Time Inc. now owns the magazine Essence and Viacom owns Black Entertainment Television. The Oprah Winfrey Network, a partnership between Ms. Winfrey and Discovery Communications, has been around since 2011. The Undefeated, ESPN’s site covering the intersection of race and sports, debuted in May. The emergence of Black Twitter has also given African-Americans a powerful voice on social media.

Johnson Publishing stressed that the Clear View Group, the private equity firm that bought Jet and Ebony, was an African-American-led company and positioned the sale more as a partnership. “We are very, very committed to Ebony,” said Michael Gibson, the chairman of Clear View.

Traditional media companies have struggled for years to adapt to a digital world, but the pressure on black-owned media has been even more acute. Many are smaller and lack the financial resources to compete in an increasingly consolidated media landscape. Advertisers have turned away from black-oriented media, owners say, under the belief that they can now reach minorities in other ways.

Since well before the Civil War, publications and, more recently, radio and television stations owned and operated by African-Americans have provided an important counterweight to mass market media, simultaneously celebrating and shaping black culture — from politics and government to fashion and music.

Johnson Publishing was started in 1942 with a modest $500 loan, and eventually turned into a media empire big enough that in 1982, its founder, John H. Johnson, became the first black person to make Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. When the radio station WVON ran a program in 2007 for Black History Month called the “28 Blacks Who Changed America,” Mr. Johnson, who died in 2005, was No. 7 on the list, behind luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.

“If we don’t own our press, we don’t have a platform to speak,” said Leonard Burnett Jr., whose company, the Uptown Ventures Group, owns Uptown Magazine, a lifestyle publication aimed at affluent African-Americans.

Several owners also pointed to another benefit: Their companies hired more minorities. Ms. Spann-Cooper of the Midway Broadcasting Corporation said 90 percent of her employees were African-American. “When we are African-American-owned, the work force looks like us,” she said.

But as financial resources dwindle, black-owned media companies are struggling to maintain their presence. Jet, for instance, became a web-only publication in 2014.

“It’s tougher and tougher for African-American companies,” said DesirĂ©e Rogers, the chief executive of Johnson Publishing, “to have the capital to compete in a landscape that’s increasingly crowded, increasingly changing.”

Mr. Burnett, who also owns Hype Hair, a magazine for African-American women, said his company was “marginally profitable.” But he said supporting his print business had been challenging largely because advertisers, particularly luxury brands, would rather connect with African-American consumers “by speaking broadly.”

“I think at times there’s a feeling that they do not want to directly speak to that audience because there’s a fear of bringing down their brand perception,” he said.

Earl G. Graves Jr., the president and chief executive of the business-focused magazine Black Enterprise, said his company was “not as strong as it was,” but preferred that it remain independent. Like many magazines, it has cut its publication schedule and focused more on its events business as a potential revenue source.

The picture is bleak in radio and television as well. In 2013, there were 166 black-owned radio stations and 68 black-owned radio companies, compared with 250 stations and 146 companies in 1995, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.

Only 12 commercial television stations in the country are black-owned, and they tend to serve very small markets. The future of Howard University Television, the country’s only black-owned public television station, is also in question, as the university’s participation in Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction has raised the possibility that it could end up selling its place on the airwaves or stop broadcasting entirely.

“Black ownership is dying,” said Armstrong Williams, whose Howard Stirk Holdings owns seven of the black-owned commercial television stations. “Newspaper ownership, radio ownership — but it’s probably hit TV the hardest.”

In the late 1970s, the F.C.C. put into place a minority ownership policy that used credits and deferrals on capital gains taxes to help make minority businesses more competitive in the bidding process and promote the sale of existing stations to minorities.

The policy, while not without critics, was largely considered a success among advocates of minority ownership. But in 1995, after a Supreme Court ruling that established new standards for race-based government policies, the F.C.C. began to disassemble the program. A year later, Congress ended the tax-deferral policy that had helped drive sales to minorities. It also did away with most restrictions on the number of radio stations a single company could own.

The resulting wave of consolidation in the broadcast industry has made it more difficult for black entrepreneurs to enter the industry, said Alfred C. Liggins III, the president and chief executive of Radio One, which while publicly traded is the country’s largest black-controlled multimedia company.

“That means that the likelihood that minority owners are going to own a TV station in New York or Los Angeles gets lower and lower,” said Mr. Liggins, whose mother founded the company with a single radio station in 1980.

For Johnson Publishing, which also owns the Fashion Fair cosmetics line, pressures on the business proved too difficult to overcome. In the last several years, it sold its historic building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, brought on JPMorgan Chase as a minority investor and reduced its staff.

“We did not feel that we had adequate capital and resources,” said Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, who was chief operating officer of Johnson Publishing and is now chief executive of Ebony Media Operations.

Yet as stories like Johnson Publishing’s have become more common across the industry, those who see their companies as following in its footsteps say the notion of black ownership continues to resonate.

Mr. Williams, who referred to Ebony as “a staple” of his upbringing, said that young African-Americans regularly expressed awe that he, a black man, really owned television stations.

“It does change the dynamic,” he said, “of what they believe they can become.”

A version of this article appears in print on July 3, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Pillars of Black Media Struggle to Stay Vibrant. 

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