For the black community in Chicago and elsewhere, Johnson Publishing Company represented a certain kind of hope.
The company’s magazines, most notably Ebony and Jet, gained prominence during the struggle for civil rights — Jet published graphic photos of the murdered black teenager Emmett Till that helped intensify the movement — and made it their mission to chronicle African-American life.
At a time when much of the media was ignoring black people, or showing them primarily in the context of poverty or crime, Ebony and Jet celebrated their success, featuring stars like Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin on their covers. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the first print publication he granted an interview to was Ebony.
So when Johnson Publishing, which is based in Chicago, announced a little more than two weeks ago that it had sold Ebony and Jet to a private equity firm in Texas, there was a sense of loss.
“It was a very heartbreaking day,” said Melody Spann-Cooper, the chairwoman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, which owns a Chicago radio station, WVON, aimed at a black audience. “Ebony gave to African-Americans what Life didn’t.”
Ms. Spann-Cooper’s reaction underscored a deeper concern: As racial issues have once again become a prominent topic in the national conversation, the influence of black-owned media companies on black culture is diminishing.
“Ebony used to be the only thing black folks had and read,” Ms. Spann-Cooper said. “As we became more integrated into society, we had other options.
To that end, Time Inc. now owns the magazine Essence and Viacom owns Black Entertainment Television. The Oprah Winfrey Network, a partnership between Ms. Winfrey and Discovery Communications, has been around since 2011. The Undefeated, ESPN’s site covering the intersection of race and sports, debuted in May. The emergence of Black Twitter has also given African-Americans a powerful voice on social media.
Johnson Publishing stressed that the Clear View Group, the private equity firm that bought Jet and Ebony, was an African-American-led company and positioned the sale more as a partnership. “We are very, very committed to Ebony,” said Michael Gibson, the chairman of Clear View.
Traditional media companies have struggled for years to adapt to a digital world, but the pressure on black-owned media has been even more acute. Many are smaller and lack the financial resources to compete in an increasingly consolidated media landscape. Advertisers have turned away from black-oriented media, owners say, under the belief that they can now reach minorities in other ways.