Ebony and Jet, two iconic names in African-American media, faced a dilemma last year. After recent years of plummeting circulation numbers, some wondered whether parent company Johnson Publishing could keep the magazines alive. Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Co., came up with an unexpected, bold and risky solution: Desirée Rogers, the high-profile former White House social secretary, would become the magazines’ new CEO, despite zero publishing experience. Rogers was tasked with finding a way to solve Ebony and Jet’s problems. Here is what she faced:
In 2009, Ebony reported an overall circulation of 1,169,870 compared with a rate base of 1,250,000, while Jet had an overall circulation of 795,055 compared with a rate base of 900,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In 2010, ABC numbers showed the magazines continued to slide, with Ebony posting total paid circulation of 1,068,383, while Jet had a circulation of 750,978 (for the period that ended June 2010). Advertising for the magazines also suffered. During the first half of 2010, advertising pages fell by twenty percent for the tiny Jet, which is eight-by-five-and-a-half inches; advertising fell about thirty percent for the standard-sized Ebony.
But Rogers would also have some good things going for her. From its inception in 1945, Ebony, published monthly, has been the best-known African-American magazine in the United States. The glossy cover with the familiar red-and-white logo has featured many prominent African-American men and women—including Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson and even President Barack Obama—as the magazine reaches out to its primarily African-American audience. Unlike Essence, a magazine aimed at black women, Ebony has a forty-percent male readership and includes savvy articles relevant to both men and women.
Similarly, its sister magazine, the weekly digest-sized Jet, also prides itself on being a publication that celebrates the accomplishments of black individuals—celebrities, politicians, musicians and more. It was founded in 1951 by John H. Johnson, head of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Co., who called it the “weekly Negro news magazine.” Jet quickly gained readers who were hungry for news of the growing activism that led up to the civil rights movement.
That long history of publishing success was on the line when, in August 2010, John H. Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, hired her friend Desirée Rogers and presented her with a huge task: revitalizing two of black America’s biggest magazines and turning the company around financially. On the surface, Rogers was an unlikely candidate for the job. She had no publishing experience. She had resigned from the White House under a cloud (as a result of the infamous gatecrashers episode). She was also known for having twice been selected as Queen of the Mardi Gras Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, not exactly a credential for rescuing a failing company.
But she knows everybody—she has access to a wide variety of influential people. She’s both charming and smart, has an MBA from Harvard Business School and has worked at a number of high-level jobs: as head of the Illinois state lottery, as president of Peoples Energy in Chicago, and as an executive at the Allstate Corporation.
Now on a mission to turn Ebony and Jet into thriving brands, Rogers has begun to change things around. She brought in the former publisher of OK! magazine, Stephen Barr, to be Ebony’s publisher, handling ad sales. She contracted with an outside firm to fix the circulation problems. She hired Rodrigo Sierra as a new chief marketing officer, brought in a new head of media sales and a new head of cosmetics. And she hired Amy DuBois Barnett, former deputy editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, to be the new editor-in-chief of Ebony. Barnett has since spearheaded the sixty-seven-year-old magazine’s first cover-to-cover redesign, starting with the logo. Rogers has also focused on launching new websites—ebony.com and myJet247.com—in an effort to attract a younger generation of readers.
So far, the results have been positive. Ebony and Jet saw a remarkable increase in their circulation through the first six months of 2011. Ebony’s readership is up nearly eleven percent, to 1,235,865, while Jet has seen an approximately seven-and-a-half percent rate of growth, to 820,557, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which listed both among the twenty-five fastest-growing magazines. At a time when the industry in general is facing declines in advertising, subscriptions and newsstand sales, such increases seem pretty impressive.
I attempted to set up an interview with Rogers, but due to her hectic schedule, she was able to provide only brief answers to a few questions. Nonetheless, because the story remains so important, what I have done in the following Q&A is to combine her electronic answers to the questions I posed with things she has said at other times, in other contexts. In the interest of transparency, I have footnoted the sources of her responses.
How has your experience in the White House helped shape your plans for Ebony and Jet?
Washington is like playing the Super Bowl, only there are no timeouts, no potty breaks and the arena is filled with the media. In government, you have to learn to put yourself second in a big way. But I am a business person at heart. I like to be in charge.”1
My White House experience has helped me to think large. I am inspired by my time at the White House and have unlimited visions for what these brands can do.2
As the first ever African-American White House social secretary, are there any significant experiences you would like to share?
I was in the White House for a year and a half. Up to that point, all my jobs had been very unglamorous. My world became much larger. As social secretary, I was responsible for putting together all the events that the president and the first lady host[ed]. This president was handed an impossible deck; I wanted to make sure that everyone felt the warmth of the family. I think everything about the security breach where two reality show stars crashed a state dinner has been said. We could all have done things a bit better.3
What is the strategic plan for making these magazines work?
We’re trying to re-establish, reaffirm and revitalize these brands. We hired Amy DuBois Barnett, the former deputy editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, as the new editor-in-chief of Ebony and we’re repositioning and modernizing the Ebony brand.4
I wanted to make Ebony prettier and more relevant. With Jet, people would say, “What are you going to do to my Jet?” We’re being very careful not to fall into a vacuum where we assume all black people want to read the same thing. That said, there are broad issues that impact the community. My daughter is twenty-one, and she doesn’t see the world in white and black. But she wants to read about our history. She helped me think about things in a different way.5
What is your mission for the magazines? What targets do you have regarding advertising and circulation?
Right now it’s so busy because we’re looking to upgrade both magazines, plus the cosmetics line without losing the rich history that’s been established. In no way do I want anyone to think that we’re walking away from our history. We want that old excitement back. We have to remain focused on what we’re trying to achieve as a unit.
People may worry about how existing readers will respond but my number one priority is to find people who love these brands. We have a great group of people who’ve been here for a long period of time and what we’re doing is sprinkling them together with our new team so we don’t lose sight of where we’ve been, but are able to leap forward and get to the next level for these publications. We brought in Rodrigo Sierra as our new chief marketing officer; we brought in a new head of media sales and a new head on our cosmetics side of the business.
We are working hard on our circulation. . . . We’ve given a lot of thought to the fundamentals of the business. We’re making sure our fundamentals are strong and we’ve built a frame for that next level. We’re not trying to be fancy-first.6
What is your target for your max audience? Is it entirely African-American or a mixture of different ethnicities?
Ebony is not just a magazine, it’s a movement . . . and we’re hoping that more than black Americans pick it up, because we need people to be aware of what’s transpiring with the forty-one million black Americans in this country.7
Who or what inspired you to take on the challenge of redesigning Ebony and Jet?
I did not redesign Ebony or Jet. I actually decided to take the job as CEO after a brief consulting job at the firm. I believe that I have the skill set to help revitalize these iconic brands with the right team. The editors that we hired have redesigned the magazines. I am inspired by the significance that these two publications have in black America and their continued importance.8
Were there worries or apprehension before taking on the task of reshaping a magazine with Ebony’s history?
Johnson Publishing offered me an opportunity to build black iconic brands like Ebony and Jet magazines. What I was worried about was my friendship with the founder’s daughter, Linda Johnson. She is my very best friend. I didn’t want to be in a position where I would put at risk her company’s legacy.9
How does the online world for Ebony and Jet fit into current and future goals for both magazines?
Online is extremely important—we expect to expand in this space. We just launched ebony.com and are working on digital versions of the two magazines. It is important to deliver the publications to the public the way they want [them].10
I don’t really see the rise of digital, social media and bloggers as disruption; I see it as part of the creative process. I view them as other distribution channels for our style, and who we are. There is an Ebony style, there is a Jet style and we need to be sure we are moving in the direction of ensuring we make a play in those various forms of distribution.11
Cathie Black, former president of Hearst, was appointed chancellor of New York City’s schools by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and was famously unable to make the transition from the head of a journalism empire to public life. Are you experiencing trouble with the reverse?
I am not experiencing trouble. It has been a very smooth transition and the world of journalism has been extremely kind to me.12
Did you grow up reading either of these magazines?
It was always there. . . . My grandfather used to always read Ebony and Jet. . . . He would say, “Look at what’s going on in our community. Look what’s occurring.” Growing up in the South, having not really traveled a lot as a young child, he said, “Look at the world.” He goes: “One day, you might get in Ebony. Maybe, one day.’’13
Is there a magazine for the black male?
Not at this time, unless we acquired one.14
You’ve spent the majority of your career serving the public. How important is it for you to reach out to others?
I think that it is extremely important to do what you can for others, but most importantly in my work I try to create an environment that allows everyone to do their best work.15
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