Tribute to a Publishing Icon
A giant in the world of publishing passed from us in early August. John H. Johnson was the founder of the world’s largest Black publishing company. His was the first and has been the leading Black publishing firm in America for more than half a century. He started with nothing, using his mother’s furniture as collateral on the loan that got him started in the volatile world of publishing. But Johnson launched more than he ever could have imagined.
Beginning with the first printing of Ebony in November 1945, and later with the addition of Jet and Ebony Man, the publishing firm that he created has informed and entertained African-Americans for 50 years. Before Blacks appeared on stage and the big screen, before Blacks became members of professional sports teams or served in powerful political positions, his publications were the only mirrors in which Blacks could look into to see themselves.
A southerner by birth — the grandson of slaves — Johnson grew up in a world of segregation and discrimination, yet he built a commercial empire second to none in the publishing industry. His hands-on management style kept him in constant touch with the fruits of his labor. We witnessed that style firsthand 20 years ago.
The year was 1985 and two young, brash entrepreneurs arrived unannounced at the Chicago headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company. We found President Johnson in the corporate mailroom, where he appeared as comfortable as the people who were sorting the mail. While a handshake and greeting from this publishing icon would have been a satisfactory ending to our unscheduled appearance, we got so much more. Johnson invited us to his executive offices where an impromptu interface with this cordial,
knowledgeable and inspirational man transpired. He wanted to know about our fledgling publication, Black Issues In Higher Education, and our plans for the future. He was attentive and encouraging.
Johnson had always been one whose work we admired and respected, but that day he became a giant in our minds. He did not fear competition — he welcomed the challenges that it presented. In a publishing world in which advertising revenues often determine a magazine’s survivability, he twisted corporate America’s arm to acknowledge the growing purchasing power of the Black population in the nation. He was relentless in his quest to attract mainstream advertisers to his pages.
Johnson listened to his readers and advertisers and kept his hand on the pulse of the entire publishing industry. His influence reached into every nook and cranny of his influential firm and his fingerprints appeared on every issue of every magazine that exited those doors.
Diverse and other publications focused on minority and multicultural issues would not exist today if not for the pioneering spirit of this man.
This country, as well as the publishing industry, has lost an icon, a legend, a giant.
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