Johnson Publishing to end 77-year run

Legendary Chicago publisher files Chapter 7

The end of the line has come for one of Chicago’s most iconic publishers.

Johnson Publishing Co. announced Tuesday it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, equal to the death penalty in the business world. The move comes as the company was unable to restructure its debt.

The company sold its trademark Ebony and Jet magazines to private-equity firm Clearview Group in 2017 but kept its vast photo archive and the Fashion Fair cosmetics line.

In the bankruptcy filing, creditors listed include former CEO Desiree Rogers and retailers such as Macy’s; in fact, Fashion Fair products started vanishing from stores in recent months. The company also failed to receive full payment from Clearview, who had its own problems as several freelance Ebony writers sued the company for non-payment. Even though the magazines aren’t affected by the bankruptcy filing, their future is up in the air.

Being sold in the bankruptcy filing are Fashion Fair and the photo archive.

The bankruptcy closes the book on Johnson Publishing after 77 years, founded by John H. Johnson who died in 2005 (I have more on Johnson Publishing’s history and their most recent woes in an article I wrote two years ago when the company sold the magazines.)  In recent years, Ebony – the only print product left in the company’s portfolio – has become less visible in retail outlets, even in African-American areas.

Until recently, Linda Johnson Rice was chairman emeritus of Johnson Publishing, but stepped down from the role. Rogers was reduced to a less viable role in the company, basically overseeing Fashion Fair as she left shortly thereafter. Johnson Publishing also had trouble overseas, filing for bankruptcy protection in the United Kingdom last year to fend off an angry creditor. In the States, Johnson is facing lawsuits over non-payment with many cases still pending.

Johnson Publishing now joins a list of media companies who have vanished from the Chicago area in last two decades, through relocation or dissolution. Among those include Harpo Productions and Playboy Enterprises (each relocated to Los Angeles); and soon, Tribune Media, whose sale to Irving, Tx.-based Nexstar is pending.