Ebony/Jet exec in Wellesley talks about publishing, Obama

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Linda Johnson Rice, CEO of Johnson Publishing (Ebony, Jet, etc.), says cover images of the Obamas have been a boon to newsstand sales of her company’s magazines, though the business is undergoing a reorganization to address a lot of the same challenges other publishing companies are facing these days.

Johnson Rice delivered the annual Quintessence Day lecture at Wellesley College in celebration of the “most perfect manifestation of black womanhood.” Her daughter Alexa, a student at the college, introduced her mom to those in attendance.

Johnson’s lecture was essentially a sales pitch for Johnson Publishing, a business that her late father launched more than 6 decades ago and now includes not only magazines and web sites, but also fashion shows, cosmetics and entertainment businesses. It was interesting to hear about the company’s assorted multimedia and digital ventures, including the digitization of back issues via a Google partnership. Johnson Rice said that “no form of communications has ever replaced another” but that the dynamics of how to make money off the different forms has changed.

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What really got the crowd going, though, was a review of recent Ebony covers and their newsstand sales numbers. The January collector’s edition with Barack Obama on the cover sold over 400,000 copies whereas the 200,000s is more average. She pointed to a recent cover featuring a shirtless Chris Brown (the singer recently making headlines for alleged abuse of his girlfriend) as being the most disappointing seller of late, proving itself to be a stretch for the magazine. A sneak peek at the April edition: Beyonce is on the cover.

Things got more interesting during the Q&A. Johnson acknowledged that being CEO can be lonely, as people never tell her that she’s doing a great job, only if she’s doing “a crummy job.”

Asked about whether Johnson Publishing might consider a magazine for “people our age” as one student put it, Johnson Rice said doing something online would be much more likely given that a physical magazine probably wouldn’t sell. Asked about what the company might look like in 10 years, Johnson said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the word “Publishing” replaced by something like “Enterprises” since the “moniker ‘publishing’ might be a little dated.”

Johnson Rice said Ebony is unabashedly an upbeat magazine and is celebrating President Obama’s victory. (She noted that Johnson Publishing has a proud history of being out in front on key African-American issues, and that Jet even broke the notorious Emmett TIll story.) That recent record-setting January issue with Obama on the cover actually features a picture of Obama with Johnson Rice inside, and she notes that her company’s building provided a backdrop to the Obama victory celebration in Chicago on election night. One student asked about whether Ebony, once the Obama honeymoon is over, will take a more critical look at the president. The magazine probably won’t, but bloggers on the EbonyJet.com website probably will, Johnson Rice said.

She said her circulation director would love to have Obama and/or his family on the cover every issue. While Ebony won’t go in that direction, it will head back to that well for sure, she said.

Johnson Rice said that Obama’s election has made her more in demand among media from around the world. Asked about whether increased attention to African-American issues by the global media will put more pressure on Johnson Publishing, Johnson Rice said it will require her team to work harder to maintain its edge, and that that’s not a bad thing.


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