Ebony: Up for Sale?

Johnnie L. Roberts, Newsweek, September 25, 2009

For 50 years, the Ebony Fashion Fair has been a glamorous social event in dozens of U.S. communities. The traveling fashion show has raised $55 million in college scholarships for African-American students. But this year the company behind the show, Johnson Publishing which publishes Ebony, pulled the plug on the event, citing lack of corporate sponsorship due to the recession. “This is devastating to us,” Ann Lee, publicity chairwoman for the Charmettes, a civic group that staged the event in Broward County, Fla., told The Miami Herald.

It’s been a year of excruciating decisions for publishing companies–layoffs, pullbacks, closures. Now it appears Johnson Publishing’s chairman and CEO, Linda Johnson Rice, has reached what must have been an agonizing decision: Johnson Publishing is seeking a buyer or investor for its flagship publication, Ebony, in an effort aimed at securing the survival of the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to African-American life. {snip}

According to media and investment executives familiar with the developments, Chicago-based Rice, the daughter of Ebony’s legendary founder, the late John H. Johnson, has approached, among others, Time Inc., Viacom, and private investors that include buyout firms. Time Inc., the world’s largest periodical publisher, already owns Essence, a monthly lifestyle, beauty, and fashion magazine for African-American women. Viacom, meanwhile, owns BET (Black Entertainment Television).

Nothing has yet resulted from any of Johnson Publishing’s overtures, however. And it’s unclear whether negotiations are underway between the publishing company and any of the identified parties or other potential rescuers.

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The economic downturn has killed off scores of magazines, including such prominent titles as Condé Nast Portfolio and Domino, while forcing others onto the auction block, including BusinessWeek. But the historic Ebony has fared worse than average amid the industry’s woes. In fact, Ebony’s advertising pages and ad revenues have declined in each of the last three years, even during periods when the industry was flat to positive. Among the 243 magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau, ad pages plunged an average of 28 percent, with revenues falling by 21 percent, in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier. But Ebony’s decline was sharper, as advertising dived almost 35 percent, dragging revenues down almost 32 percent, to $18.8 million from 2008’s $27.7 million. And the deterioration of Jet magazine, Ebony’s sister publication, was even more severe–about 40 percent in ad pages and revenues.

And according to industry tracker Media Industry Newsletter, things have only turned grimmer for Ebony since the first half. Total ad pages sank by 40 percent this year through the October issue, now on newsstands and featuring Whitney Houston on the cover, compared with 2008’s January–October editions. {snip}

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