Ebony Magazine founder John Johnson is widely regarded as the most influential Black publisher in modern history. He worked for a life insurance company that catered to African American customers before graduating from university. While working for Supreme Life Insurance Company, he was assigned the task of compiling weekly news clippings for his boss, which inspired him to create an African-American magazine.
He founded Negro Digest in 1942. Its first issue sold approximately 3,000 copies and grew to 50,000 monthly circulations. In 1945, he founded Ebony, a general-interest magazine aimed at African Americans.
The initial print run of 25,000 copies of Ebony was completely sold out. It had a circulation of about 1.7 million by the early twenty-first century.”
Johnson began his publishing career with a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture and $6,000 in charter subscriptions for the Negro Digest, later renamed Black World. Johnson Publishing expanded once more in 1951, with the launch of Jet, the world’s largest African American news weekly magazine (1951–2014).
Johnson used his sales skills to land multiple advertisements that brought in a lot of money. His advertising clients include both white and black-owned businesses. Zenith, a radio manufacturer, was reportedly the first company he persuaded to advertise in his magazines, and others quickly followed suit.
At a time when African-Americans were rarely covered in the press, unless they were committing crimes, Ebony earned acclaim and became revolutionary for its coverage of the civil rights movement and profiling of successful Black businesses. Naturally, it evolved into a platform for Black startups and businesses to advertise. Ebony and Jet meant a lot to African-Americans because they reinforced positive images of themselves.
The magazines were available in nearly every black-owned beauty salon and barbershop across the country, where customers would typically read while waiting to be serviced. At one point, Ebony alone was said to reach more than 40% of the nation’s black adults — a reach unrivaled by any other general-interest magazine in the country.