The founder of Ebony, the late John H. Johnson, borrowed $500 to start his first magazine, Negro Digest, in 1942, putting up his mother’s furniture as collateral. He created Ebony weeks after World War II ended, and a few years after that he launched Jet. For decades, these two periodicals have been the heart and soul of his now troubled media empire.
To be sure, Johnson created the magazines to make money. That he did in abundance. His publications “formed powerful prototypes for success in black media’’ and “set the standard for black business in America,’’ writes Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University. But Johnson also wanted to do more than that. He wanted to change hearts and minds. Johnson wanted to show people on both sides of the color line a simple truth: black is beautiful, too.
At a time when people of color almost never made it into the pages, let alone onto the covers, of Life or Look or scores of other “mainstream’’—read white—publications, Johnson sought to make African Americans and their accomplishments visible to the whole world. As Julieanna L. Richardson, an African-American archivist, puts it, “Ebony was a positive machine. It gave you a sense of self-worth.’’
“That need still exists,’’ she adds. “We’re still bombarded with negative images. It affects the soul of our community. It affects the world’s perception of us.’’
If Ebony belongs to the past, then Christopher Rabb and Cheryl Contee belong to the future. They are among the frontiersmen and women of the increasingly expanding black blogosphere. Rabb, forty, is the founder and “chief evangelist’’ of the blog Afro-Netizen. He started the site of political and cultural commentary in 1999 as an e-mail newsletter. Within eighteen months, he says, he had 10,000 subscribers. “It filled a gap,’’ Rabb says. “Everywhere I’d go and there were more than a dozen black folks, someone would say, ‘Rabb, are you the Afro-Netizen guy?’’’
He is also the great-great-grandson of John Henry Murphy Sr., who founded the Baltimore Afro American newspaper in 1892. Rabb was on the board of the Afro American for ten years but resigned in 2007 partly because he felt the paper “wasn’t moving fast enough to integrate technology into the business model.’’
“Many of our institutions have fought technology because they thought it would run us out of business,’’ he says. “Ebony was one of the strongest household brands in black America for decades. It could have been a leader in social media. But family-owned businesses tend to be the most conservative businesses. No one wants to change a winning formula—until it’s too late.’’
Cheryl Contee, thirty-eight, is the founder of the blog Jack & Jill Politics: A black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics. She grew up with Ebony and Jet, but has a hard time remembering the last time she’s read an issue. Ebony, she says, has not updated its style or its use of the Web sufficiently to fit modern African Americans. “I think they’re trying to catch up,’’ she says. “The question is whether they have time.’’
Contee believes that while race still matters, it does not matter nearly as much as it did even a few years ago. “My experience in America is very different than the lives of my parents and grandparents,’’ she says. “If it weren’t for the increasing assimilation of African Americans into society, then there wouldn’t be a black president. I don’t know if Ebony and Jet necessarily acknowledge that reality.’’
Yet she says she started Jack and Jill Politics in 2006 because when she surveyed the Internet she did not “find the voice of the African-American middle class being respected and honored in any significant way.’’
Of course, that’s the same reason John H. Johnson started Ebony in the 1940s.
Veteran journalist Sylvester Monroe thought he had found his dream job when he joined Ebony as a senior editor in 2006. He had been a journalist for thirty-seven years, twenty-seven of them at Time and Newsweek. Monroe was lured to the magazine by the publisher’s promise that Ebony was going to be different. It was going to make a splash on the Internet and improve the writing in its print publications. “I was told we were going to bring Ebony into the twenty-first century,’’ he says, “that we were going to make it more relevant, give it some edge, bring it back to its old position as a relevant and important publication.’’