Johnson Publishing to Sell Entire Historic Photo Archive

A picture is worth a thousand words. You know that.

Measured in dollars, Johnson Publishing is hoping 5 million of them will fetch closer to $40 million.

Looking to raise cash, the Chicago-based publisher of Ebony magazine has put its entire photo archive up for sale. The historic collection spans 70 years of African-American history, chronicling everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sammy Davis Jr.

Johnson Publishing has had its collection appraised and recently hired a consultant to shop its wealth of iconic images, including a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of King’s widow and child, taken at his funeral.

“It’s just sitting here,” said Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers. “We really need to monetize that in order to ensure growth in our core businesses.”

Ebony, a monthly lifestyle magazine targeting African-Americans, was first published in November 1945. It came of age during the Civil Rights movement, with Ebony staff photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. producing some of the most important images of that turbulent era.

Sleet followed King from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the 1965 Selma march. And he was there in April 1968 for King’s funeral, capturing his widow, Coretta Scott King, with their 5-year-old daughter, Bernice, pressed forlornly against her lap. The powerful and poignant image earned Sleet a Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a black journalist. Sleet died in 1996 at 70.

johnnyboyPutting a price on his body of work will fall to the newly retained consultant.

“This is an incredibly important archive.” said Mark Lubell, executive director of New York’s International Center of Photography. “It is the definition of the African-American experience in the latter half of the 20th century, and it’s an amazing, valuable asset.”

Raising capital is crucial for the company, which is facing declining revenue and a rocky transition from print to digital under Rogers, the former social secretary for President Barack Obama, who has been steering the legacy African-American media company since 2010.

Her moves have included taking on a minority partner for the family-owned company, redesigning Ebony, its flagship magazine, and taking the money-losing weekly digest Jet out of print circulation.

Rogers inhabits a spacious 21st floor perch overlooking the lake along South Michigan Avenue.

The views from the small, unmarked archive room in the back are even more remarkable, and may be the key to keeping the privately held company on solid financial ground.

Winding through conference rooms and past cubicle stations, a short hallway leads to a white door. Behind it are 70 years of history documenting the African-American experience.

Alphabetized vaults are opened by hand cranks, revealing shelves of photos in manila folders stacked floor to ceiling. The fireproof room is kept cool to preserve the collection, with white gloves at the ready for the few allowed to examine the specimens firsthand.

Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing and daughter of founder John Johnson, recently leafed through her family’s legacy, now for sale.

In addition to King’s funeral, she offered a glimpse of other memorable Ebony photos including Jackie Kennedy consoling Coretta Scott King, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson’s first fight in 1965, glamorous shots of jazz singer Billie Holiday, and some less famous subjects, such as New York limousine owner Roosevelt Zanders posing proudly in front of his fleet of 1950s-era Cadillacs.

“This is just a tiny piece of what’s in the Johnson Publishing archives,” Johnson Rice said. “It’s not just celebrities. There are many human interest stories here.”

In 2011, JPMorgan Chase’s Special Investments Group took a 40 percent stake in Johnson Publishing to infuse much needed capital into the historic but struggling media company. Rogers said selling the photo archive is a much bigger deal for the company, which has seen declines in its ad revenue outpace that of the magazine industry at large.

Ebony has a total average circulation of 1.26 million, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, topping rival Essence, which is published by Time Inc. Advertising revenue at Ebony was down 24 percent last year, while Essence declined 7.5 percent, in line with the industry, according to Standard Media Index. Standard Media Index monitors ad spending through data obtained from media buying agencies.

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