Pioneering black publisher lived the advice he left for us

August 12, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - I don't remember everything that John H. Johnson, the pioneer black publisher, said when he was honored by the National Association of Black Journalists in 1987. But I probably will never forget his three words of advice:

"Make yourself indispensable."

It's hard to find three better words that sum up the successful business philosophy of John Harold Johnson, who died Monday at age 87.

To black Americans of my generation, Mr. Johnson's publications Ebony, Jet and Negro Digest were indispensable reading matter, offering a brighter and more prosperous vision of black America than most of the mainstream - also known as "white-owned" - media provided.

To advertisers, his pioneering publications broke through the myth that the black consumer market was not worth targeting through black-owned media.

Today, the newsstands are filled with magazines niche-marketed to blacks or Hispanics, but that really began with Mr. Johnson in the 1940s.

And to journalists, particularly black journalists, Mr. Johnson's publications provided employment, a training ground and a model for how people of color might be covered in a more complete fashion than simply crime, sports or show business stories.

His 1989 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, reads almost like a business-school series of case studies in how to solve whatever problems life throws at you.

When Arkansas refused to educate black children in his area past the eighth grade, his mother, Gertrude Johnson Williams, a cook and domestic worker, saved for two years to move her family to Chicago in the 1930s.

Young Johnnie was working days at a black-owned life insurance company and studying at night at Northwestern University when he started Negro Digest in 1942 with $500 that his mother raised by borrowing against the family furniture.

When its circulation stalled at 50,000 a few months later, he persisted in requesting a guest column from Eleanor Roosevelt until she agreed, immediately boosting circulation to 100,000.

In 1945, Mr. Johnson launched Ebony, a picture magazine for blacks. Its initial press run of 25,000 copies was completely sold out. Pocket-size Jet magazine began in 1951. Jet helped launch the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when it published open-casket funeral photos of the mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was savagely murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi.

All of this gave Mr. Johnson's "make yourself indispensable" speech special resonance. Speaking to his audience of predominantly young and aspiring print and broadcast journalists, he offered us the example of Matthew A. Henson, the black man who helped Adm. Robert E. Peary reach the North Pole.

Mr. Henson was not hired under any affirmative action plan or out of the goodness of Admiral Peary's heart, Mr. Johnson pointed out. Mr. Henson was hired because he had taken the time to learn the language of the Inuit people, who were indispensable to their journey.

What Mr. Johnson did not mention was the equally fascinating story of how he gave an autographed copy of Mr. Henson's autobiography to Zenith Electronics Corp. CEO Eugene McDonald, after hearing that Mr. McDonald was a fan of Arctic explorers.

Mr. McDonald was impressed enough that Zenith became Ebony's first major corporate advertiser in the 1950s. He helped persuade other major corporate advertisers to follow, a major breakthrough at the time for black-oriented media. Two decades later, Mr. Johnson was elected to Zenith's board of directors.

Mr. Johnson understood that no one, black or otherwise, would patronize your business purely out of racial loyalty. Consumers in a free market want value, service and quality. He set a high standard for all three. Despite the changing times that his publications helped to bring about, he found ways to stay indispensable. So must we all.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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