ELEVEN STORIES up, plush beige carpet spreads across The floor of the office all the way to the sliding glass doors.They open onto a long spacious balcony set with tables and chairs. Beyond is Grant Park and beyond that is Lake Michigan, so vast and glistening blue that it could be the ocean off Florida instead of the lake off Chicago's Michigan Avenue.John H. Johnson, the head of Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher of Ebony and Jet Magazines, is explaining how 31 years ago he purchased his previous office building -- the one at 1820 Michigan Ave. The owners were white and they were not selling to anyone "colored" -- not in 1949.
The situation was simple. He had several options, he says in a wry but businesslike voice: "I could have reported it to the NAACP. I could have marched around the building. I could have reported it in the magazine. But I wanted the building."
So he did the obvious thing. He arranged for a white friend to claim interest in buying the building. This friend told the owners he wanted to send his maintenance man over to look at it. Johnson became the maintenance man, donned old clothes, and went to the building to check it over thoroughly. He decided he wanted it, and told the white friend to buy it for him.
"I felt good," says Johnson with aplomb. "I knew I had bought the building. If I had to do it over again, I would. I stooped all the time to get what I wanted."
This is the story of the most successful black publisher in America -- one of the most successful businessmen, black or white, in America. Among black businesses, his ranks second in sales -- with $61 million worth -- only to Motown Industries, the Detroit record and entertainment company.
In has indeed gotten what he wanted -- maybe not as much by stooping as by ingenuity and clever salesmanship. Some would prefer a word like ruthless. But certainly all would agree on "clever."
He doesn't really have any competition in publishing in the black market. Black men and women read his two top-selling magazines, Ebony and Jet (not including his two other publicastions, Black Stars and Ebony Jr.) more than any other magazines in America, according to a poll published in Advertising Age this spring. With Ebony's circulation of 1.3 million, his closest competitor among black women is a not-very-close Essence magazine, with 600,000 readers. Among black men, Sports Illustrated is second. Johnson says he helped Essence by letting them put subscription cards in Ebony. "And I've never let any other magazine do that," he says.
After 35 years of publishing Ebony -- 38 years since he first went into print with the now-defunct Negro Digest -- he still runs the publishing empire singlehandedly. But the empire now includes more than publications. There is a black music radio station, WJPC-AM (the company's initials), the music from which is pumped into the high-ceilinged lobby and elevators of Johnson Publishing Company at 820 S. Michigan Ave.
There is the successful seven-year-old Fashion Fair Cosmetics. He is also chairman and chief executive officer of Supreme Life Insurance Company, the firm where he once worked as an office boy and then became editor of its house organ.
Through it all, Ebony has looked basically the same for 35 years. On the cover -- black stars, black athletes, black entertainers. Inside -- success stories, made-it-up-the-ladder stories. The woman who sent her three kids through Harvard Law. The New York man sending three daughters through medical school. The first black woman Rhodes Scholar. The Chicago secretary who opened her own factory.The black casting director in Hollywood who puts people in nonexploitative roles, and so on.
In 1935 Ebony began with stories like "From Slave to Banker, 91-Year Old Richard Robert Wright."
"We're trying to inspire people," says Johnson, himself the epitome of the Ebony cover story. Headline: John H. Johnson, From Office Office Boy to Millionaire Publishing Mogul.
At 62, Johnson looks about 10 years younger. He strides into his office, a short, stocky man who talks in a deep, unpretentious voice with a bit of raspiness. His tan summer suit jacket has a buttoned vest underneath. He is always neatly and perfectly outfitted. One former staffer said he cannot remember ever seeing John Johnson without either a vest on or his suitcoat buttoned.
He can pick and choose among the offerings of boards to sit on. Right now, he holds boards memberships on the Bell & Howell Company, Greyhound, Marina City Bank of Chicago, Supreme Life Insurance, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, and Zenith. He is a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and the United Negro College Fund.
He also sits on the advisory council of the Harvard Graduate School of Business. "Well you tell them if the business school is preparing people for the outside world. They give us cases to read, and," he says, a smile playing at his lips, "you give them a little money." He breaks into a low, full-bodied laugh.
Johnson is upfront and perpetually amused at certain incidents that now blend into his life history of a business struggle hard-fought. Any emotional scars have long faded behind the bemused brown eyes -- at least for bublic consumption. As he launches into twice-plus told tales of how he made it, he leans back in his chair, hands clasped up in front, eyes closed, and rapidly goes through the stories, sounding slightly sing-song in boredom. He has told them before -- for the business school publications, the business magazines, Reader's Digest.
In 1942, it was as much a hurdle to get the money to start his first publication -- a black news digest called Negro digest -- as it was to get it distributed.
"The first thing the distributor said was 'we can't distribute any colored books,'" Johnson recalls. "I said, 'If you knew the colored magazines would sell, would you distribute them?' the distributor said, 'Why sure.'"
So Johnson -- after leaving several of his cards on the distributor's desk -- got a group of 20 friends from the insurance company to go to newspaper stands on the South Side and ask for the magazine. The dealers, who did not have the magazine, would call the distributor. The distributor eventually supplied them to the dealers. Johnson got some money out of the bank, gave it to his friends and they went around buying the magazine. "We made sure we never went to the same dealer. The only way to create demand was to buy."
The dealers reordered. When the distributor called Johnson asking for more magazines, Johnson took back the very same copies his friends had bought. The circulating grew to 50,000 in one year.
He doesn't forget these things. A former employee relates this story: Strapped for cash, since most of his transactions had to be cash, Johnson fell into debt to his printer during the '50s. When he wanted to print in Jet a surprising news photo of a Miami white woman shining a black man's shoes, the technician refused.
Johnson balked. The printer said pay up, and the picture is yours. Johnson cooled his heels. Ten years later, Johnson was the printer's second biggest client. One day he sent the same picture back -- and told them to print it. They did.
Mainly, he's trying to inspire middle-class and striving-to-be middle-class blacks, a class he once was fervently part of. "We're not a happiness magazine. We still live in a country where there's lots of racism. We must challenge that. But we must do everything we can to improve our situation."
Some argue Ebony is more happiness than journalism. "I don't buy the rah-rah approach," says Grayson Mitchell, now a special assistant to George Johnson (no relation), a black Chicago businessman who runs Johnson Products. Mitchell left Johnson Publishing because of his own frustrations with the limit of journalism there. "Ebony is very much a reflection of Johnson's own estimation of the black intellect -- and it's a preception not much different from whites. He thinks black people must be entertained. He thinks you must make them sing and dance. He doesn't view them as serious people who want to be informed about the world around them. The black educated household is tremendously more enlightened than that. This is 1980, not 1945. And Ebony essentially looks like it did in 1945."
Of course, somebody is still buying it.
Long after Life magazine has come and gone and come back again, Ebony, which set out to copy Life's format, is still here. Pinched by soaring postal charges, Johnson makes up for it by increasing subscription rates, increasing ad rates (as high as $18,000 for a full page color ad inside Ebony).
"There's something non-progressive about going back in size" says Johnson. "So I've made a commitment to stay large. We'll never reduce."
And he expects to be around. "Imagine a white magazine with the same format as mine going out of business and me staying in business," says Johnson referring to Life magazine. "Now, I've got to know something."
Like many powerful men, he lives elegantly. He has a condominium in the Carlyle on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, "the Gold Coast," lined with the high-rise residences of other powerful, wealthy people. His apartment is really two put together, featuring bathrooms equipped with Jacuzzis, library walls covered with leather, and a Picasso hanging in the dining room. It's a long way from the welfare rolls that he and his mother, with great distaste, went on for three years in the mid-'30s in Chicago.
His office is equipped with a gym and barbershop. He likes big cars -- he drives a Cadillac -- a few warm vacations in Palm Springs (but not too many -- he'd rather work), and pretty women -- so the stories go.
His wife Eunice is secretary-treasure of Johnson Publishing Co. and director of the enormously successful Ebony fashion show that tours the country each year.
He has traveled around the world, been a special ambassador to the Ivory Coast and Kenya, received letters from presidents -- which he puts under glass in an awards room at Johnson Publishing -- and visits from important politicians. The latest was Ronald Reagan, who flew to Chicago this month after speaking to the Urban League in New York. "I'll meet with anyone who asks to meet with us," says Johnson. "But we won't take sides in this election."
He even owns a tiny $50,000 portion in the Chicago White Sox -- an investment he made when Chicago was trying to keep the team in the city. He is the only black with any money in the team, he says.
He has no bosses, no stockholders, no board of directors. He doesn't need them now, and when he did, at the beginning, he couldn't find any who wanted him. "I don't have any reason to go public," he says. "Why get a boss after 38 years?"
He likes his employes at work on time, and in fact when they arrive late, only minutes past 9 a.m., the security guard makes them sign in. There was a time, he says, when if his editors and writers didn't finish assigned stories in 30 days, they were fired. "Now, we've found ways to preclude that," he says.
Just as strict a policy, he says, is that no writer should have to write on a subject with which he has problems. "We wouldn't force a liberal Democrat to write about black Republicans," Johnson says.
He is, in effect, the head of a large family. Some paint a Norman Rockwell portrait of a man who gave many black journalists their start when there was no other place to start. He is the man whose mother hocked her furniture for $500 so he could have enough money to finance his first publishing venture.
When he became successful, he gave his mother her own office in the building and supplied her with red roses daily. She died three years ago. Her large office remains untouched and perfectly neat, almost a memorial.
Others paint the picture of another John D. Rockefeller, the consummate businessman -- a stern taskmaster who, according to one journalist, sometimes would not let reporters out of the building for lunch unless they cleared with superiors where they were going.
He is the man who said he would push over a 10-story building on a baby if it meant stopping a threat to his business.
"It was a joke," Johnson says laughing about the line. "An in-house joke.
I said it in jest. I've never done it."
He is a loner -- and a winner. And he intends to stay both. For instance, he declined to join a small organization of black publishers.
"He earned what he got," says Waynett Sobers, vice-president of Black Enterprise magazine, a member of this organization. "Maybe he feels he's done all his fighting and he's tired."
No -- it was simply bad business to join. "They were talking about all of us going in to sell an advertiser together," explains Johnson. "I don't believe in group selling."
He is careful -- as are other blacks in publishing -- to point out that he is not pitting himself against any other magazine.
But, he adds "I do not want to put the destiny of my company in the hands of anyone else -- particularly if they haven't done as well as I have."
Most publishers portray a vicious world out there for black publications, who must fight against extraordinary economic prejudice -- still -- for the business of white advertisers. And in that world, Johnson paved the way for black magazines. Says Marcia Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. "If there hadn't been an Ebony, there wouldn't be an Essence. There wouldn't be a Black Enterprise."
"Very few people love him," says Mitchell. "But they respect him. All he cares about is money. That's what made Mobil Oil great. That's what made all the great businesses of America."
They will not tear down heroes. We would sooner not do a story," says Herbert Nipson, the executive editor of Ebony. "In Jet, it would be a news story. But we wouldn't do a feature in Ebony."
Johnson confirms that. "We don't rush to print critical things about black leaders -- even if it's true," he says with a soft laugh of irony. We've deliberately avoided doing anything on Charles Diggs in Ebony. We don't want to add to his humiliation -- or to blacks' humiliation."
And for some, this is the way it should be: blacks should not be tearing down blacks in print. "I guess in a very real sense, white folks do that for us," says black Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.). "Ebony is trying to reach out and cultivate positive images we so desperately need."
But some think the magazine could have come farther. "There's no reason why he couldn't have done a lot more things -- if no more than good national news," says Gordon Parks, the noted black photographer and film director, who professes great respect for Johnson, although there has been some friction between them. "After all those years and all that money spent, I would expect the magazine could be more professionally done."
John Britton, now public relations director for the University of D.C., left Jet in the mid-60's then returned in 1968 to be managing editor. He stayed three years. "I had complained that Jet didn't have enough news," says Briton. "He said he was ready to make it a news magazine. But he didn't do a lot of the things he talked about. Jet is still more entertainment. It's hard for me to conceive that what I saw on the cover of Jet was the most important item of the week in the black community."
But Johnson says the best way to draw new readers -- particularly younger ones -- to the magazine is with flashy covers. "We're looking for people [for the covers] with instant recognition," says Johnson. "And most of those people, among blacks, unfortunately, are entertainers and sports figures."
Johnson argues that Ebony's success-story format will never go out of style -- at least not for the next 10 years. He paints a gloomy picture of the tide of conservatism washing over efforts for advancement that blacks seemed to be gaining during the mid and late '60s. "I was more optimistic 10 years ago," he says. "I sit on a lot of corporate boards. Blacks are not on corporate tracks to take over. There aren't even enough in training programs. cTen years from now, people are going to need inspiration stories as much as they do now."
Johnson defends Ebony as a news organ. "When Stokely [Carmichael] first screamed black power on the road to Memphis, we dispatched a reporter immediately. When Angela Davis was in prison, we sent a reporter. Anytime anybody does anything important, we're up there photographing."
It's also the magazine that has produced Lerone Bennett, its most famous resident writer and prolific author of books on black history (for Johnson's book division which mainly publishes Lerone Bennett.) Ebony has tread some controversial ground -- "The White Problem in America" produced a furor in 1961. "It was almost a revolutionary thing to say then," says Johnson.
Lerone Bennett's "Was Abraham Lincoln a White Supremacist?" was a bit shocking as well.
And they have cut triumphant ground. "We did a story on black-on-black crime that said blacks have got to stop killing each other," remembers Johnson. "I expected criticism. I got nothing but accolades. It was the most courageous thing we have done in the last two or three years." i
He has financially supported all the big black organizations: the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, the NAACP, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Jesse Jackson's PUSH. Plus the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and B'nai B'rith.
Still, he has a reputation for being stingy with pay. He runs a non-union shop -- benevolently, he says. And he has been known to make sumptuous offers to journalists he either wanted to keep or wanted to get. One such pursued reporter remembers Johnson approaching him at a public gathering and saying, "What's your salary? I'll double it.Do you make $35,000? I'll give you $70,000."
But he is always the businessman. His touring Ebony Fashion Fair generates hefty funds for scholarships, but, more importantly, it generates subscriptions. That is its main purpose, Johnson says. Every person who buys a ticket to the Fashion Fair gets a free year's subscription to Ebony or a six-month subscription to the weekly Jet. And about 300,000 buy those tickets each year. "He's a very coy commercial marketer," says Grayson Mitchell.
He knew, he says, that all over the world people were reading Ebony. He had been told that it was smuggled into South Africa where it was banned until a few years ago, he says. But it never hit home as hard as on a trip he took in 1957.
He was part of a press entourage accompanying then vice-president Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of several African countries. In Ethiopia there was a huge press conference at which Emperor Haile Selassie presided from his throne. The white journalists were all seated in front. The black journalists were pushed way in the back, Johnson recalls.
But Selassie spoke up, inquiring, "Where's the man from Ebony? Where's the man from Ebony?" Johnson was ushered up to the front.
Selassie told him how much he enjoyed reading Ebony, how much he liked reading about the progress of blacks. And, by the way, he was having problems with his subscription. Could Johnson handle it for him?
Johnson Publishing's demographics show that the median age of that Ebony buyer is about 32 years old. The executive editor of Jet, the small news digest, says it is often referred to as the "nigger Bible" because it is so well-read and believed. Even whites read Ebony. About 20 percent of the readership is white, much to Johnson's distress. "If we get too many, I won't be preeminent in my field," he says. "I'll be out there competing with white magazines for advertising."
He never did finish college -- something he doesn't recommend. His beginnings were meager. He left his native Arkansas and boyhood aspirations to be a minister to go to Chicago with his mother. "Her friends thought she was crazy," says Johnson. "'You gonna take that boy up there in all that cold?' My mother had great drive."
Johnson flourished in all that cold. He graduated from high school and won a college scholarship to the University of Chicago. During school, he began working for the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Company, working his way up from office boy to editor of the house news organ, from part time to full time. In 1942, he launched the idea of writing digests of news for blacks in general much the same way he wrote digests for the insurance company.
With $500 from his mother and the Supreme Life company mailing list of 20,000 names, he put out some bait.
"I thought up the idea of advance subscriptions," he says. "Three thousand people sent in $2. I've never been about to do it again. But the letter I wrote was most unusual. Blacks who could hardly read had Esquire magazine on their tables. They were buying encyclopedias to impress their friends. The letter I wrote said, 'A friend of yours told me about you. You try to keep abreast of Negro issues and developments.'"
When he says the word "Negro," Johnson routinely inserts the reminder, "and we were Negroes then."
The letter went on to say that Johnson was offering a charter subscription rate of $2 -- "$1 off the regualr subscription rate."
The insurance company house printer helped -- he mistakenly thought it was a house project.
As Negro Digest got rolling, Johnson started a feature, written by well-known white liberals. It was called "If I Were Negro." The first author they got -- after some persistent letter writing and telegram-sending -- was the president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. She began her story, "If I were Negro, I would have great bitterness. But if I were Negro I would also have great patience."
It was a hit. It was published in October 1943, and circulation soared that month to 150,000. Others contributing to that series were prominent Chicagoan Marshall Field III, Edward G. Robinson and Orson Welles.
In fact, the whole magazine was such a hit that Johnson was taking in $24,000 gross a month on 100,000 copies. For tax reasons, he took money and invested it in a new magazine -- Ebony."It was kind of the thing to do," he says.
Then the hard part started -- selling ads. "I tried white salesmen, black salesmen, I tried advertising in trade magazines. I couldn't sell ads. I was ready to go out of business. I thought I've got to rely on myself."
So he did. He went to see heads of companies about advertising. "I would say, 'I'm the president of a small company and I think I have something to say to your president.'"
Sometimes he got in. Once he got Commander Eugene McDonald of Zenith -- his first advertiser. McDonald called Ira
Douglas Stewart of Quaker Oaks, the Elgin Watch company, Swift and Armor Packing House.
Mostly he and his salespeople pounded the pavement, spending years wooing companies into advertising in Ebony. Procter and Gamble took six years. The airlines, 20 years. The Detroit auto companies, 10 years. "We had a salesman who rode the train to Detroit every week for 10 years," says Johnson. "Sometimes I'd go with him. They'd say they were thinking about it. Chrysler was having financial problems -- as they are now -- and they finally said they felt they had to try something new." Johnson's laugh issues up in triumphant amusement.
"Mr. William Grayson [one of the Johnson staff] used to say he worked on Campbell Soup 17 years, so many months, so many weeks, so many days, hours, and minutes," Johnson says."He literally broke them down. He supplied them with so many facts and so much data on consumers that they literally broke."
On the wall of the advertising department are framed posters of slick, crisp ads that ran 10 years ago promoting the Ebony readership as a bountiful consumer market to be tapped by companies. The caption on one showing black professionals reads: "If these men and women have rhythm, they've put it to work on marketing cycles or computer electronics or fabric patterns... Ebony is where 49 million people do their shopping."
The $8 million building contains a $300,000 art collection, the work of many black artists all over the country. It is practically a monument -- sometimes an ostentatious one -- to black success. So Johnson would argue, is Ebony.
Around the wall of his office, a tour guide is leading out-of-towners through: "This is Mr. Johnshon's private dining room. Princess Grace has dined here ..."
"The degree to which people can see you is important," says Johnson as the tour group drew nearer. "They know it's possible if they can see it." He turned to the group. "Come on in ..." They trooped in, and he posed and smiled obligingly, asking them where they were from -- a politican working the tour group. One pleasant woman said she had a friend who once went to school with Johnson's brother. He smiled and commented politely. Johnson doesn't have a brother.
"I felt no need to correct her. She was probably thinking about George Johnson," he says later, referring to another very successful black Chicago businessmen, George Johnson of Johnson Products. "George and I joke about people getting us confused," says Johnson. "I think at first we got annoyed, but not now."
George Johnson, who manufacturers cosmetics like Afro Sheen, did in fact get very annoyed at John Johnson when he started his line of Fashion Fair cosmetics. George Johnson got so annoyed he pulled his ads from Ebony for about a year. "I think he got over it," says John Johnson. The two men insist they are friends who share mutual respect -- contrary to widespread black community gossip.
Shortly before Herbert Nipson graduated from journalism school at Penn State, a publisher at a careers-day program apprached him. "You're colored," Nipson remembers the publisher saying. "Well, where are you going to work?" Nipson said to him, "I'll find a place."
He, like so many others, did. He has worked for Johnson for 38 years now, staying on through the time when Johnson was raided by other white publications. (To keep his best people, Johnson went to them and offered them virgually anything.) "I would much rather work for a black publication than a white one," says Nipson. "There's a difference between black reporters and white reporters approaching their subjects. I guess it's a rapport with blacks that you don't get with whites."
The highest ranking staffers have been there for years, but the younger staffers turn over frequently. The loyal ones will tell you he takes care of his staff. But when Fannie Granton, a woman who worked in the Washington bureau of Johnson Publishing for 20 years died this year, some were deeply hurt that Johnson did not fly here for the funeral. He sent Nipson. He also contributed only $1,000 to a scholarship fund set up in her memory. "A pittance," says one former staffer angrily.
Johnson defends himself, saying that Granton's family changed the original date of the funeral without consulting him. He had cleared his schedule for the first date, and he decided he couldn't do that for the second date. Similarly they set up a scholaship fund without consulting him.
"I shouldn't be judged on what I think of Fannie by what I give to a fund set up by someone else -- done without my input. Had I been consulted, I would have made a major contribution because I felt major about Fannie. And if it turns out be be a viable fund, I'll contribute."
Johnson sits back comfortably when talk of the recession comes up. For now, he runs his empire like precious cargo through rough seas. He would like to buy a television property, but he can't find the right one. "I never bet all of what I have on an unknown," he says.
He has no plans to retire right now but he would like to cultivate his family as businessmen. He has two children, both adopted. His 22-year-old daughter Linda, fresh out of University of Southern California journalism school, now works at the company, mainly with her mother on the Fashion Fair end of things. His son, John, 24, has a debilitating disease called sickle cell anemia and is currently hospitalized.
Staffers say it is Linda who is most interested in following in Dad's footsteps.
In Johnson's mind, Ebony will be around. "What we're doing with Ebony is needed by everybody," Johnson says."The kind of thing we've provided for blacks is needed by whites, too."
But says Grayson Mitchell wistfully, "It could be so much better. For one thing, it could be journalism."