Pillars of Black Media Struggle to Survive ; Companies Are Smaller and Lack the Financial Resources to Compete

By Sydney Ember; Nicholas Fandos | International New York Times, July 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

Pillars of Black Media Struggle to Survive ; Companies Are Smaller and Lack the Financial Resources to Compete


Sydney Ember; Nicholas Fandos, International New York Times


The influence of black-owned media companies on black culture is diminishing. Companies are smaller and lack the financial resources to compete.

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, owners say, in 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. …

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