Johnson Publishing Co., former owner of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines that helped changed the negative image of black people portrayed by U.S. media, filed for bankruptcy liquidation Tuesday in a federal court in Chicago.

The bankruptcy filing only affects Fashion Fair Cosmetics and JPC’s famously historic photo archives.   JPC sold both Ebony and Jet in 2016.  When early news releases incorrectly reported JPC as the current owner, the current owners – Ebony Media Operations, LLC, were quick to demand a retraction. 

In announcing the Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, the company said it was “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.” The issues included the bankruptcy of a major retailer that carried its Fashion Fair Cosmetics line, a “costly recall” of products and increasing competition from digital rivals, the company said.

A Pioneer in Print

John H. Johnson founded the company in 1942 when he launched Negro Digest with a $500 loan from his mother. The magazine summarized newspaper articles about black life.

But key to the company’s growth was Ebony magazine, founded in 1945 and patterned after Life magazine, one of the nation’s leading magazines at the time. The average monthly circulation of Ebony was around 2 million for a time in the 1990s, making it the largest magazine catering to blacks.

After reporting revenues in the hundreds of millions in the 1990s, the company’s fortunes began to decline after Johnson died in 2005 and magazines in general began to struggle as advertisers moved to alternative media.

With Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, in charge, the company tried to halt its decline with the sale of its assets, including its historic headquarters on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

In 2014, Jet ceased print editions and became a digital-only publication. In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to Black-owned Ebony Media Operations, LLC (EMO) with Clear View Group, a Black-owned equity firm in Texas, putting together the investment team and holding a large percentage of the LLC’s ownership.

Despite being under new ownership, the company struggled financially, with freelance writers suing to be paid. The lawsuit was settled last year.

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