MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For more than half a century, the magazines "Ebony" and "Jet" have provided news by, for and about African-Americans. Now the recession has placed them and their owner in economic peril.
NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It might seem all smiles at Ebony magazine these days, as its correspondents win attention in Washington from the nation's first African-American president.
President BARACK OBAMA: Kevin Chappell.
FOLKENFLIK: This from a White House press conference in March.
Mr. KEVIN CHAPPELL (Senior Editor, Ebony Magazine): Thank you, Mr. President. A recent report found that as a result of the economic downturn...
FOLKENFLIK: Or its recent expansion into digital media, including the Ebony/Jet channel on YouTube.
Unidentified Woman: Jada Pinkett Smith is H-O-T, don't you think? We think so. And Ebony magazine is documenting just how hot she is...
FOLKENFLIK: But things aren't so hot for Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, Ebony's owner. The magazine's circulation is still pretty large, above 1.3 million issues, but advertising revenues have dropped swiftly. For the first six months of this year they're down more than 30 percent against the same period last year. Jet's drop was worse.
Similar plunges occurred at such magazines as Vanity Fair in New York. But as Ken Smikle says...
Mr. KEN SMIKLE (President, Target Market News): When America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia.
FOLKENFLIK: Smikle is president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based newsletter that tracks marketing and media aimed at African-American audiences.
Mr. SMIKLE: When we talk about the things that we wish Ebony magazine would be for a 21st century audience that has experienced, really, a boom of media options, we forget how important Johnson Publishing Company is as a benchmark, a touchstone, a barometer of how black American business is doing.
FOLKENFLIK: And troubles are mounting. Crain's Chicago Business reports that Johnson Publishing has been forced to borrow $12.7 million against its property in downtown Chicago. And it has been hit with liens by a contractor for failure to pay bills.
In a statement, the privately held company acknowledged it is, quote, "exploring a range of options to support our core media business." Though a spokeswoman denied reports it was currently in talks to sell all or part of the magazines to industry giants Viacom or Time Warner.
Here's how the magazine's founder, the late John H. Johnson, described Ebony's achievements in an interview with NPR back in 2002.
Mr. JOHN H. JOHNSON (Founder, Ebony Magazine): It was a ray of hope. It gave them the feeling that there were black people in other cities and in other countries like themselves, who were doing well. And it inspired them to do better.
FOLKENFLIK: Johnson's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, fully runs the company. Rice and others at Johnson Publishing and at the magazine declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sidmel Estes is a marketing consultant and a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. She says Ebony has lost its edge.
Ms. SIDMEL ESTES (Former President, National Association of Black Journalists): If you have Beyonce, for example, or Whitney Houston on the cover of Ebony and are using that to drive newsstand sales, well, every other magazine has a picture of Beyonce or Whitney Houston on it. So, what is it that differentiates Ebony or Jet from any other magazine?
FOLKENFLIK: Harper's Bazaar, for example, currently has Janet Jackson on the cover. ESPN the magazine offers Michael Jordan. O Magazine features another black Chicago institution: Oprah Winfrey, as it does every issue. And plenty of younger readers really aren't reading - turning to TVs, iPods or video games instead.
Carol Williams is founder and CEO of one of the nation's largest black-owned advertising agencies. She says Ebony was indispensible.
Ms. CAROL WILLIAMS (Carol H. Williams Advertising): It was a iconic symbol of the viable black household. It was a symbol of the aspiration to move up. It was a constant reminder of who you are and what your goals are.
FOLKENFLIK: But she says: no longer. Williams and others say that as African-Americans are more commonly found in the mainstream media, Ebony and Jet will have to redefine themselves to become indispensible once again.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.