Ebony with its sister publication Jet were the pre-eminent popular magazines of American black culture. They were founded and owned by the Johnson Publishing company of Chicago but in recent years have foundered with falling circulation and a difficulty in transitioning to a digital or multi-media strategy. The Johnson Publishing company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April and put all its assets up for sale.
The good-news side of this sad story is that among the assets was a large picture archive, full of historic and dramatic visual images. By any measure a large archive: 3 million negatives and slides, nearly 1 million photographs, plus audiovisual material and contact sheets. Last week this historic resource was sold for $30 million. Even better than the price, the purchasers were the Ford Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and it seems that the fruits of their purchase will be well looked after for they are to be curated by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
This transaction will certainly be of interest to many magazine publishers — and I have known a few who have shipped their archives off to barns or warehouses miles distant from their digital editorial offices — but one should note that the Johnson Publishing Company may be something of a special case. For this sale to be possible they must have been good at storing and retaining the materials they commissioned (166,000 contact sheets — would not survive in most barns); and they must have also been careful as to having good title: for the sale would only have been possible if their practice and to some degree their records establish ownership of all these copyrights. Furthermore the cultural record and heritage of that incredible segment of black American popular culture is extraordinarily valuable. But by no means unique: think football, rock music, fashion, cars and Hollywood. There are other areas where the graphic and symbolic resonance of magazine archives can be deep.
We draw one lesson from this happy ending: troubled mass market brands need to think about and develop the value of their archives! Before we say good-bye to this story there is one other matter to consider. What happens to the magazines? It is not entirely clear that the magazines have survived the failure of the Johnson Publishing Company. The current website for Ebony advertises the Spring 2019 issue. But with no news on the May, June or August issues. Wikipedia says that the titles were sold to Clear View Group so there may be hope for continued publication of the magazines. Some years ago large parts of the magazine archives were digitised by Google (when Google was planning to digitize all magazines) and a substantial chunk of Ebony, 1959–2000 is available from Google Books. This degree of open access, half the full content but without the early years of publication, does however leave scope for a historic and archival digital access to the complete and we must hope continuing runs of the magazines and Exact Editions would be delighted to work with the new owners to develop this market. The fact that large parts (perhaps all) of the original picture archive will presumably be made open access by its new owners/curators (Getty and the Smithsonian) defines while it invites and justifies an interesting and valuable opportunity for such a resource.