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Johnson Publishing Company Files For Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Protection


It was the name behind iconic magazines like Ebony and Jet. But Johnson Publishing Company - one of the most successful black-owned corporations in U.S. history - has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The Chicago-based company has been struggling in recent years. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In a 2002 interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, Ebony's founder, John H. Johnson, was very firm about his magazine's mission.


JOHN H JOHNSON: Ebony is a magazine devoted to making people feel good, making people proud of their heritage.

GRIGSBY BATES: Until that time, most black Americans didn't show up in the mainstream media, unless the stories were about criminal activity or destitution. John Johnson wanted them to see something else.


JOHNSON: First time I ever saw a black person in print in a tuxedo was in Ebony.

GRIGSBY BATES: That formula showcasing black achievement and prosperity kept Ebony flush for decades. It financed a landmark tower on tony Michigan Avenue and a nationally known haute couture fashion show. But the publishing world was changing and shrinking. John Johnson died in 2005. And his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, tried to run the company before selling Ebony to a pair of black venture capitalists in 2016. The duo soon made news for not paying several Ebony writers.

There were two remaining assets of Johnson Publishing - a stunning photo archive that is the institutional memory of post-war black America, and its Fashion Fair cosmetics line. Now those, too, will be sold. Fans of Fashion Fair, the first high-end makeup for black women, had been worried for a while that e-commerce was killing the brand. Late last year on YouTube, makeup artist Lashelle Farrington wondered about Fashion Fair's fate.


LASHELLE FARRINGTON: I know at the counter in my city, the person that works for the counter doesn't even know when they're going to get items in stock. It's like Russian roulette.

GRIGSBY BATES: With yesterday's filing, the last bullet has left the chamber. The company's statement says an unnamed group with, quote, "a proven track record of advancing cultural preservation and building and operating legacy brands" has made an offer for some of those assets, and the bankruptcy trustee will evaluate the offer. And after 77 years of proud existence, the Johnson Publishing Company will soon be history.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.