DAVID GREENE, host: Here's some good economic news. The company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines is hiring. Johnson Publishing Company, the iconic black business based in Chicago, is enjoying a sharp turnaround. Circulation and revenue for its flagship magazines plummeted in recent years, but now at Ebony and Jet the numbers are looking up. And editors say, with redesigns and infusion of cash from a new partnership, Johnson Publishing has survived the turmoil that has rocked the media industry. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report.
CHERYL CORLEY: The CEO of Johnson Publishing has been on the job now, for just over a year.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
CORLEY: In her office, former White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers picks up a phone call. She's dressed casually in jeans. The staff worked into the wee hours of the morning putting the last touches on a final edition. Rogers' job is to breathe new life into the companies Ebony and Jet magazines and its Fashion Fair cosmetics line.
DESIREE ROGERS: There is a new energy and a new excitement and a new pace. We're taking what was, and building on that to the next level.
CORLEY: Founded by John H. Johnson and his wife Eunice in 1945, Ebony has provided news for and about African Americans for more than 60 years. The digest-sized Jet came next. Its historic photographs and coverage of the 1955 lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till helped spark the country's civil rights movement.
Rogers says as the company works to reinvent itself, the vision the Johnson's had of being an inspiring voice for black Americans remains, even though there's keen competition for the African American market.
ROGERS: Ebony is not just a magazine, it's a movement. And we're hoping that more than black Americans pick it up, because we need people to be aware of what's transpiring with the 41 million black Americans in this country.
CORLEY: Ebony and Jet still sit atop the black magazine market, but in recent years, circulation for the magazines tumbled, drastically, as did ad revenue. Nat Ives, media editor with Advertising Age says Johnson Publishing turned to outside consultants for help.
NAT IVES: Those consultants decided that Ebony was charging too much for subscriptions compared to the competition, wasn't doing enough direct mail marketing, asking for renewals enough, and it wasn't even putting enough copies around hair salons and public places where readers might find the magazine, become intrigued, and subscribe.
CORLEY: Circulation was outsourced and the magazines are now on a rebound. For the first half of this year, readership for Ebony rose 11 percent. For Jet, it was eight percent. And in August, the Audit Bureau of Circulation listed both magazines among the top 25 fastest growing consumer magazines. This summer, Johnson Publishing took a crucial step selling an equity stake to banker J.P. Morgan Chase. Company Chairman Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of the company's founders, said on NPR's TELL ME MORE show, it was a decision not taken lightly.
LINDA JOHNSON RICE: I really wanted this business to grow, and I really stopped and I thought, you know, if we really want to expand and we want to expand Ebony and Jet and Fashion Fare cosmetics as brands, right now we just can't do this alone. It's too challenging of an environment.
CORLEY: Rice added the investment allows the company, which remains black-owned, to accelerate its plans. For more than a year now, Johnson Publishing has been setting up a new management and editorial team, recently hiring a new editor in chief for Jet magazine, a new director for Ebony's digital operations, there's a new president of Fashion Fair Cosmetics and celebrity make-up artist Sam Fine will lead efforts to create new products.
The company even plans, next year, to look at reviving some form of the Ebony Fashion Fair style show...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now ladies, if you want to start your very own glam odyssey here's a little something you need to know. You have to make sure that you are well dressed...
CORLEY: For more than 50 years, Fashion Fair models strutted on runways wearing dazzling costumes and connecting African-Americans to the world of high fashion. Johnson Publishing discontinued the traveling extravaganza two years ago. It's focusing, first, on revamping its flagship magazines.
AMY DUBOIS BARNETT: If you add tone to the white, it's gonna make it look muddy, and it looks great, it's really crisp and nice.
CORLEY: Amy Dubois Barnett, the new editor in chief of Ebony Magazine, is in her office - talking on the phone with a designer about the colors she wants on the magazine's next cover. She says part of her mission is to make sure the magazine attracts a new generation.
BARNETT: When I came to Johnson Publishing Company, I was tasked with bringing the average age of the readership down, and bringing the average household income of the readership up.
CORLEY: The cover of the October Ebony features a clean, less-cluttered look. There's singer Mary J. Blige and a sole headline. Inside, there are articles about sexy singles, the decline of the elite black athlete, a debate over gay marriage and a feature on Susan Rice - the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Barnette says she working to balance fashion, entertainment, and news that's empowering
BARNETT: And also still very rooted in the coverage of social issues, of political issues, that Ebony has always done so well.
CORLEY: Richard Prince with the Maynard Institute for Journalism writes an online column at The Root.com. He says one of the most pressing challenges for the entire magazine industry has been internet competition. But Prince says Johnson Publishing has an edge.
RICHARD PRINCE: They still have an advantage in doing traditional journalism - that is feature stories and even news, where as a lot of the other internet publications deal, basically, with opinion and op-ed pieces.
CORLEY: That said, Ebony's Barnett says she's already introduced an iPad application of Ebony and a new website should be launched by the end of the year in her quest to get 30-somethings interested in the magazine again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORLEY: At Chicago's Bud Billiken parade - the largest African-American parade in the country, I conducted my own unscientific survey to find out who is reading Ebony and Jet.
RON JONES: I've been reading them for the better part of my life.
CORLEY: Ron Jones is a 52-year-old contractor.
JONES: It taps into the community, who I am, an African-American, and it gives me insight on entertainment and things that are happening, not only here in the city, but around the country and the world and everything.
CORLEY: For 32-year-old Iesha Clark, Ebony magazine still belongs to earlier generations.
IESHA CLARK: Yeah, I heard of it and seen it and, you know, and seen a few times, but I haven't read it before.
CORLEY: Johnson Publishing officials say they recognize the challenge. They're planning a hard marketing push for the revamped Ebony and its website. The redesign of Jet will occur towards the end of the year.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.