Ebony Looks to Its Past as It Modernizes

December 8th, 2012

Nathan Weber for The New York Times

Desir?e Rogers, left, and Linda Johnson Rice in the archives at Ebony.

DESIR?E ROGERS, the C.E.O. of Johnson Publishing, which owns the magazines Ebony and Jet, and Fashion Fair, a makeup line aimed at women of color, can see many sights from her 21st-floor corner office across from Millennium Park. “This is a good view of Chicago,” Ms. Rogers told a recent visitor, gesturing at a panorama of Lake Michigan, Grant Park, Navy Pier, the Adler Planetarium and Soldier Field. But the sight that holds the most personal meaning for Ms. Rogers may be a portrait by Robin Harper just above her purple retro sofa, depicting the boxer Jack Johnson with a soft, wounded expression.

The portrait, Ms. Rogers said, reminded her of looking at pictures of Muhammad Ali in the pages of Ebony with her grandfather as a little girl growing up in New Orleans. “My grandfather really liked fighters,” she said. As they flipped through the magazines, she said, he’d tell her: “I hope you’re great. And I hope one day you’ll be in those pages.”

Ms. Rogers, 53, has been in the pages of Ebony many times since her first appearance in April 1989 in a photo from George H. W. Bush’s inauguration. Her name now sits atop the magazine’s masthead, just below that of her best friend, Linda Johnson Rice, chairwoman of the company.

Ms. Johnson Rice’s father, the late John H. Johnson, founded Johnson Publishing in 1942 with a $ 500 loan he secured against his mother’s furniture when he was 24. Since then, Ebony (the name was the suggestion of Ms. Johnson Rice’s mother, Eunice Johnson) has gone on to become one of the most recognizable African-American publications in the world. The Harper image was part of the huge art collection of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson (no relation to the boxer), and it graced the cover of the magazine in March 1978.

Ms. Rogers joined Johnson Publishing just over two years ago after a short, controversial run as White House social secretary for President Obama. Among the tasks she has set for herself is making Ebony a lifestyle brand.

“We started looking at the assets that we have and also to really think about the Johnsons and what they were creating,” Ms. Rogers said. “We have incredible loyalty and love from the community. We have great relationships with our clients, who have been rooting for us to turn around and modernize.”

In early November, Ebony.com introduced The Ebony Collection, an online shop that sells framed prints of 2,000 photos selected from the magazine’s million-image archive. Reprinted from the original negatives stored in a climate-controlled room, the images were selected by Ms. Johnson Rice, who spent months poring over her father’s original commissions. “We kept everything,” Ms. Johnson Rice said. “Every major event that’s happened to African-Americans since 1945, with Ebony as a repository for all those photographs and as a voice for all that happened.”

Paying respect to history is a theme repeatedly invoked in the Johnson Publishing offices, so much so that it was no surprise running into Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Harvard W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, in a conference room. Professor Gates was there with a film crew shooting a PBS series, “Many Rivers to Cross: The History of the African American People,” and was being shown images from the archives by Ms. Johnson Rice for an episode that will cover 1940 to 1980. “My family got Ebony,” he said later. “Every family subscribed to Ebony and Jet if they were black.

“They still have cultural resonance among all classes of African-Americans,” Professor Gates said. “Very few organs of journalism reach a wider swath of the African-American community than Ebony and Jet.”

In 2013, that community will once again welcome the Ebony Fashion Fair, which began bringing high fashion to 160 cities across the country in 1958, but has been on hiatus since Eunice Johnson’s death in 2010. (“It’s the No. 1 question I get as I travel the country,” Ms. Rogers said. ‘When is the show coming back, Desir?e?’ ”)

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