STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now let's report on the sale of Ebony and Jet. ClearView Group, an African-American private equity firm, bought those historically-black magazines. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team reports in the magazine's founder, Johnson Publishing.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: For decades, Ebony and Jet magazines were on many black Americans' coffee tables and in the waiting rooms of black doctors and dentists and in much thumbed-through piles in black barbershops and beauty salons. Audrey Smaltz, a former announcer for the Ebony Fashion Fair, one of the world's largest traveling fashion shows, says these magazines were a must.
AUDREY SMALTZ: People wanted to know what was going on in the colored world, in the African-American community.
BATES: Smaltz went to work at Ebony in the 1970s, partly because of original publisher John Johnson's focus on stories about black achievers. In its heyday, politicians and movie stars, entrepreneurs, artists and athletes were all featured on Ebony's covers.
SMALTZ: Mr. Johnson told us about people who had studied and had done great things and had discovered things and designed things. Where did you hear about them? You read about it in Ebony.
BATES: Its sister publication, Jet, became famous in 1955 for publishing unedited photos of Chicago teenager Emmett Till's body after he was lynched in Mississippi. The national outrage that followed is credited by many with igniting the modern civil rights movement. Sylvester Monroe is a former Ebony senior editor and native Chicagoan. He says the company's flagship building, designed by a black architect and filled with African and African-American art, was also a source of inspiration to the city's black community.
SYLVESTER MONROE: There was just a huge amount of pride to have a black publication and that logo up on top of the building that you could see for a long way away. And it saying Ebony, Jet - it did used to bring goose pimples to you.
BATES: So when the building was sold in 2011, there was anxious speculation about the future of the magazines it had housed.
KEN SMIKLE: In many ways, after the building was sold, everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop.
BATES: That's Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based corporate marketing news company that tracks black consumer buying patterns and trends. Jet ceased publication a couple of years ago and now exists in digital form only. Ebony has both digital and print versions. Both magazines had been victims of the same fragmentation and shrinking circulation that has affected much of the publishing world. And some of Ebony's critics feel it has lost a lot of the influence it had in the 50s and 60s when it covered the civil rights movement. But questioning Ebony's relevance clearly rankles Smikle.
SMIKLE: When folks would say, do you think the magazine and the company are still relevant? And I would say, I don't know. Is your grandmother still relevant?
BATES: In other words, history is still important, not just to readers, but also to employees. Ken Smikle says Ebony's staff considers their work more than just a job.
SMIKLE: You don't come to work every day at a black media company with the idea of getting rich or getting famous. You come with a sense of mission that what you do is an important part of an entire community.
BATES: Chairman Linda Johnson Rice is the daughter of company founder John H. Johnson, who died in 2005. A company statement says this week's sale will allow Johnson Publishing Corporation to reduce its media-related debt and concentrate on its profitable cosmetics division. Whether selling Ebony and Jet will ensure their future survival is up in the air. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.