Black Business Leaders Series: The Entrepreneurship Behind Ebony Magazine

For more than seven decades, "Ebony" magazine has chronicled the most important African-American issues, personalities, and interests of its time, including operating essentially as the journal of record for the civil rights movement. But along with most other media companies, the publication faced stark challenges to survive in the rapidly changing media landscape of 2015. Senior lecturer Steve Rogers discusses Ebony magazine’s storied history, including its founder’s awareness of disruption theory years ahead of time, and what the company has meant for the black community.

Subscribe on iTunes  Follow on Libsyn

Subscribe on iTunes  Follow on Libsyn

Brian Kenny: 1945 was a tumultuous year in the United States. The nation mourned the loss of President Roosevelt in April and then rejoiced weeks later on VE Day while the war raged on in the Pacific throughout the summer. In August, the world's first computer booted up at the University of Pennsylvania, taking up every inch of space in the 30-by-50-foot room it occupied. The Detroit Tigers outlasted the Chicago Cubs four-three in the World Series, and the Andrews Sisters topped the billboards charts. On November 1st of that year publisher John H. Johnson delivered the first issues of Ebony magazine, to newsstands in Chicago. Over the next seven decades and counting, Ebony would chronicle the most important African-American issues, personalities, and interests. Today we'll hear from Professor Steve Rogers about his case entitled Ebony Magazine. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Steve Rogers is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and an MBA himself. He teaches entrepreneurial finance and a new course titled “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.” Steve, thanks for joining me today.

Steven Rogers: Brian, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Kenny: I love this case. It was sort of this epic sweeping historical look at this great publication that's been around, as I mentioned, for 71 years at this point. I think people will really relate to it. This is part of a series that we are doing on Cold Call to recognize Black History Month. This will be the first installment.

Rogers: Beautiful.

Kenny: How does the case begin? What's the protagonist up to?

Rogers: The case begins with the CEO of Ebony in the year 2015. It was Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of John Johnson, the founder. Linda Johnson Rice is pondering what to do with the company as she's faced with a crisis that, quite frankly, almost everybody in the media industry was faced with at that time. She's thinking about her choices as to how to lead this company. While she's thinking about these choices, she's looking at a photograph that was taken by Moneta Sleet, Jr., one of the Ebony photographers, and it's a photograph of Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, at his funeral in 1968, and she's sitting there clothed in a black veil and black clothing with her daughter Bernice on her lap. Linda's looking at this photograph, and she's thinking about the history of Ebony and what the whole company has been through over the last seven decades under her father's leadership, and then her leadership. This photograph is one that was almost never taken. It was a photograph that ended up being selected by the Pulitzer organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for Moneta Sleet, Jr. He was the first African-American to win such an award in the journalism category.

The history of the photo is also relevant to Ebony magazine's history in that the photo was taken at the funeral, and at that funeral the media pool consisted entirely of white media, with the national networks taking up all of the space. Andrew Young took note of the fact that there were no blacks represented in the media pool at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the funeral was being held. Andrew Young, the legendary Civil Rights organizer with Dr. King, went to Coretta Scott King at a time that she was in great grief about her husband being assassinated, and he informed her that there were no blacks in the media pool. She immediately said, "There will be no media in attendance at this event if there's no blacks included," and so she demanded that they include blacks in the media, and specifically she asked for Moneta Sleet, Jr. The reason was because he, along with Ebony, had chronicled the entire history of the Civil Rights movement.

Kenny: Before we dive in too deeply into the case, I loved that setup. I thought it was a very vivid way to put Ebony at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. You wrote this case as part of this course that you're teaching. Can you just give us a glimpse into what inspired you to choose this topic?

Rogers: As you know, I'm creating a new course, "Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship," and I've written 14 new cases for this course. All of them have black protagonists. As you mentioned, I'm an alum of Harvard Business School. I absolutely love this institution. One of the things that had bothered me over time is the fact that we have 10,000 cases that we've published at Harvard Business School, approximately. My last count shows that less than 100 have black protagonists.

Our students, our first-year students, will read approximately 300 cases here at Harvard Business School in their first year. Last year only two of them had a black protagonist, and the students didn't know that they were black protagonists until the end of the class. The reality is, disappointingly, we almost have a segregated curriculum here at Harvard Business School, and so what's happening is our black students do not get a chance to see black role models. Our non-black students, they don't get a chance to see black brilliance in the business world either. Then the other thing is, unfortunately, the world doesn't get a chance to see black brilliance, because we at Harvard Business School, we provide the curriculum and the content for curriculum to other business schools around the world. If that content does not include cases that have black protagonists, again, we're denying the world an opportunity to be introduced to great black entrepreneurs and businessmen and women who should be recognized.

I wrote this case as part of the 14 new cases that I've written for the course, and I selected this case because in my opinion John Johnson is one of America's greatest entrepreneurs. This is a young man who pulled himself up from nothing with only a high school education, and he ended up creating a magnificently large company that not only created wealth for him but wealth for others. This is the other more important thing that I'm trying to emphasize with my course, that success should not only be defined by the monetary rewards that one gets but also, “what do you give back?” That's what John Johnson did. He made a difference in the world with the creation of his company, he uplifted a group of people in America who desperately needed it. He also created jobs for people who had never had jobs in that industry, but he's one of America's greatest icons.

Thirty years ago when I was a student here I heard him speak. He came to our African-American Student Union conference. That's when I found my purpose in life, when I heard him speak, because what he said at that time was, "All of you in this audience, you have the opportunity to matriculate at the best business school in the world." He said, "The question that I have of you is: what are you going to do with it?" He said, "Here's your answer." He said, "You take that education and you make a lot of money. Then with that money, you uplift your community." Ever since then I knew my purpose in life, and that was to use business and the benefits and all the rewards of business to help uplift my community and help people who are less fortunate than I am, specifically the African-American community. So he's a special man in our country's history and a special man to Harvard Business School.

Kenny: That's a great story. I want to get more into his background too and who he was as a leader, but I'm curious. Was Ebony magazine a fixture in the Rogers household when you were.

Rogers: Oh, absolutely. Come on. You know. Ebony and Jet. I used to sell Jet magazine, the little five-by-seven periodical that we used to have a little satchel on the side of our belts that we could put the Jet magazine in, but Ebonywas in everyone's household. I was just talking to a friend about it. One of the things we cited was the Ebony magazine in your house was a piece of art that would not only be read but it would sit on the front room, living room table, so people could see it. It was a sign. It was a sign that you were part and you were in the know when you had Ebony magazine.

I came from a low-income family with a single parent that was on welfare, never finished high school, so it was not just for the middle class or the upper middle class. It was for all of us. The reason was because it was so aspirational. It was about positivity, and we got a chance to see things and people that we had never seen before; that is, black people who were accomplished and doing extraordinarily well.

Kenny: Johnson shows that approach really because of things that he had experienced as a young man, and the first newspapers that he saw that focused on the black community, they had no pictures in them of black people. Talk about that a little bit.

Rogers: The reality is Johnson was raised at a time, and many of your young listeners don't realize there was a time, in America not only after we were slaves, African-Americans were slaves, but the Jim Crow period, where blacks were legally denied opportunities that everybody else had. During that time there seemed to be and there was an intentional effort to almost dehumanize African-Americans and demonize them. Despite the fact that we had worked for free, the next effort was made to make us look as bad as possible. John Johnson grew up at a time where there literally were rules that stated in the media that the photo of an African-American should never be shown unless it was associated with him or her committing a crime. He also was raised during the Great Depression, where he saw signs being paraded by. For example, an organization called The Black Shirts. It was a white organization that had signs during the Great Depression when 25 percent of—in 1933 25 percent of the white population was unemployed, 50 percent of the black population was unemployed, but he saw people parading around with signs that says, "No jobs for African-Americans," but they used the "N" word, but "No jobs for African-Americans until every white man has a job." Signs that said, "African-Americans, go back to the cotton fields. City jobs are for a white man." John Johnson grew up during that era where he saw images of black people being demonized and also, as we stated earlier, just a legal discrimination of blacks, and everything that was depicted about a black was in a negative fashion.

Kenny: He chose to do the opposite with Ebony magazine.

Rogers: John Johnson, God bless his soul, he's—in a vernacular of the old school words—he was a race man. He believed in the uplifting of his race. John Johnson said, "There's beauty and not only is there beauty in the beautiful color of black," he said, "There's gold there." John Johnson made the decision that “I want to be a part of the solution,” and being a part of the solution in his mind was to show black people in a very positive light so that other blacks could see themselves in a very positive fashion. They could see black role models who were well accomplished who weren't just athletes or entertainers. He had a twofold mission, and that was to create a very successful entrepreneurial endeavor, but also it had some social benefits that he was targeting, and that was the uplifting of the black community as well as educating the white community about the successes of black people and countering all of the negativity that was being out in the public at that time.

Kenny: He didn't shy away either from the more controversial things that were happening around him. In fact, is it a stretch to say that Ebony was sort of the journal of record throughout the Civil Rights Movement?

Rogers: It's not a stretch whatsoever. In fact, it is an absolute fact. One of the seminal instances or occurrences that happened was when a young man, 14 years old, Emmett Till, was raised in Chicago and he was sent to vacation with his family to Mississippi. Emmett Till in 1957—excuse me—1955, goes to visit his family for the summer. Emmett Till ends up being murdered by a group of white men who shoot him in the head, shoot him in the face. They strangle him. They put a 75-pound cotton gin over his neck and threw him in the river. Emmett Till's body was found, and when his body was found, his face was seven times the normal size of his head. His face looked like clay because it was so decomposed. His mother said, "I don't want him buried down here in Mississippi. I want him buried back up in Chicago," and she said, "I want the casket open." She also told John Johnson, "And here are his photos. I want you to take photos of his face, because I want America to see what they did to my baby." John Johnson said “I had to do this,” and that is publicize these photos to show man's inhumanity to man. He published those photos of Emmett Till's face. Throughout the entire Civil Rights Movement Dr. King repeatedly and regularly called Mr. Johnson and said, "Listen, please send photographers and writers down here to cover this." He said specifically, "Some white writers may cover it, but in all likelihood they're not, and even if they do, they're going to cover it from a different slant, so please send reporters down."

Ebony magazine, if we want to look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, you can't ignore Ebony. In fact, if you want to see photos and read articles about it in great details, you must go to the Ebony's archives to get that information.

Kenny: Let's fast forward a little bit and get up into some of the meat of the case. Now, the magazine experiences tremendous growth into the 70s, into the 80s. I actually thought there were a couple of interesting insights that came through to me. One was that the first thing that disintermediated the media industry, the first disruptive force, wasn't the internet. I kept thinking, "Oh, it's the internet." It was television, right?

Rogers: Yes. It's fascinating. Thanks for bringing that up. The first magazine that John Johnson actually founded was called the Negro Digest. The Negro Digest, he founded it in 1942. Ebony was founded in 1945, but the Negro Digest was sort of off of the Reader's Digest, and it was a little bitty handy, like five-by-seven periodical. The Negro Digest had articles. It didn't have a lot of photographs in it. The photographs that it did have were black and white. With the advent of television, John Johnson recognized color was becoming more important, and he decided, as all great business men and women have decided over time, “Well, if disruption is coming, let me disrupt myself.” What he did was he discontinued the Negro Digest and he started Ebony , because he said, "With television people are going to be accustomed to seeing something a little more lifelike, with color and glossiness." You're absolutely right. The internet was not the first disruption. It happened much earlier. If you think about one of the quotes that John Johnson made early in his life, what he said was, something to the effect of, "We have to recognize the fact that technology is happening so fast and news is coming so fast that we must change." He said that in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

Kenny: Yeah, prescient.

Rogers: What we see here—and this is a perfect example, Brian, of what I'm talking about in terms of when we exclude people, brilliant people like John Johnson—what we see here is one of America's foremost entrepreneurs who understood disruption before we started talking about disruption. This was one of America's great entrepreneurs who was able to see things before others saw them, but we've never heard anything about him, for the most part. I knew about him, but it's imperative for you and others to know about him. Look and think about what he did. He was able to survive all the disruption as well as he was able himself to say, "It's about to happen. Let me do it to myself before others do it."

Kenny: Let's talk a little bit about Linda. Daughter of John, right? She gets into the business as well, and now she winds up being the protagonist, who's really dealing with the tremendous disruption caused by the internet to the publishing space.

Rogers: Linda became a CEO in 2002. By 2015 she was faced with the challenge of where to take this company, and the reason was because the entire industry had collapsed, combined with the fact that the economy was in a recession, the greatest recession since the World War II. As a result of that, advertisers were pulling back. Advertisers were putting their money in the internet, advertising on the internet. Then Linda also became aware of the fact that advertisers were paying her a rate that's significantly less than what they were paying white media companies for the same number of viewers. It was sort of what we call in the black community, she was experiencing the black tax. It's kind of ironic that in 2015 she was experiencing it, the same as her father experienced it 70 years earlier. Linda was faced with this great challenge of at a time when media companies are dying, they're being destroyed, Newsweek was sold for one dollar. All the periodicals, all the media companies were facing this crisis, and Linda was no different. The case focuses on what should Linda, as any brilliant business woman would have to do, what should she do?

Kenny: I don't want you to give that away.

Rogers: I will definitely not give it away.

Kenny: Steve, thanks so much for joining me today.

Rogers: It's my pleasure. I thank you for inviting me to participate, and I'm looking forward to participating and being a part of this in the future. Thank you very much.

Kenny: No better way for us to kick off this series. You can find the “Ebony Magazine” case, along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny, your host, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity

 Read more

Brian Kenny: 1945 was a tumultuous year in the United States. The nation mourned the loss of President Roosevelt in April and then rejoiced weeks later on VE Day while the war raged on in the Pacific throughout the summer. In August, the world's first computer booted up at the University of Pennsylvania, taking up every inch of space in the 30-by-50-foot room it occupied. The Detroit Tigers outlasted the Chicago Cubs four-three in the World Series, and the Andrews Sisters topped the billboards charts. On November 1st of that year publisher John H. Johnson delivered the first issues of Ebony magazine, to newsstands in Chicago. Over the next seven decades and counting, Ebony would chronicle the most important African-American issues, personalities, and interests. Today we'll hear from Professor Steve Rogers about his case entitled Ebony Magazine. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Steve Rogers is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and an MBA himself. He teaches entrepreneurial finance and a new course titled “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.” Steve, thanks for joining me today.

Steven Rogers: Brian, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Kenny: I love this case. It was sort of this epic sweeping historical look at this great publication that's been around, as I mentioned, for 71 years at this point. I think people will really relate to it. This is part of a series that we are doing on Cold Call to recognize Black History Month. This will be the first installment.

Rogers: Beautiful.

Kenny: How does the case begin? What's the protagonist up to?

Rogers: The case begins with the CEO of Ebony in the year 2015. It was Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of John Johnson, the founder. Linda Johnson Rice is pondering what to do with the company as she's faced with a crisis that, quite frankly, almost everybody in the media industry was faced with at that time. She's thinking about her choices as to how to lead this company. While she's thinking about these choices, she's looking at a photograph that was taken by Moneta Sleet, Jr., one of the Ebony photographers, and it's a photograph of Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, at his funeral in 1968, and she's sitting there clothed in a black veil and black clothing with her daughter Bernice on her lap. Linda's looking at this photograph, and she's thinking about the history of Ebony and what the whole company has been through over the last seven decades under her father's leadership, and then her leadership. This photograph is one that was almost never taken. It was a photograph that ended up being selected by the Pulitzer organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for Moneta Sleet, Jr. He was the first African-American to win such an award in the journalism category.

The history of the photo is also relevant to Ebony magazine's history in that the photo was taken at the funeral, and at that funeral the media pool consisted entirely of white media, with the national networks taking up all of the space. Andrew Young took note of the fact that there were no blacks represented in the media pool at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the funeral was being held. Andrew Young, the legendary Civil Rights organizer with Dr. King, went to Coretta Scott King at a time that she was in great grief about her husband being assassinated, and he informed her that there were no blacks in the media pool. She immediately said, "There will be no media in attendance at this event if there's no blacks included," and so she demanded that they include blacks in the media, and specifically she asked for Moneta Sleet, Jr. The reason was because he, along with Ebony, had chronicled the entire history of the Civil Rights movement.

Kenny: Before we dive in too deeply into the case, I loved that setup. I thought it was a very vivid way to put Ebony at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. You wrote this case as part of this course that you're teaching. Can you just give us a glimpse into what inspired you to choose this topic?

Rogers: As you know, I'm creating a new course, "Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship," and I've written 14 new cases for this course. All of them have black protagonists. As you mentioned, I'm an alum of Harvard Business School. I absolutely love this institution. One of the things that had bothered me over time is the fact that we have 10,000 cases that we've published at Harvard Business School, approximately. My last count shows that less than 100 have black protagonists.

Our students, our first-year students, will read approximately 300 cases here at Harvard Business School in their first year. Last year only two of them had a black protagonist, and the students didn't know that they were black protagonists until the end of the class. The reality is, disappointingly, we almost have a segregated curriculum here at Harvard Business School, and so what's happening is our black students do not get a chance to see black role models. Our non-black students, they don't get a chance to see black brilliance in the business world either. Then the other thing is, unfortunately, the world doesn't get a chance to see black brilliance, because we at Harvard Business School, we provide the curriculum and the content for curriculum to other business schools around the world. If that content does not include cases that have black protagonists, again, we're denying the world an opportunity to be introduced to great black entrepreneurs and businessmen and women who should be recognized.

I wrote this case as part of the 14 new cases that I've written for the course, and I selected this case because in my opinion John Johnson is one of America's greatest entrepreneurs. This is a young man who pulled himself up from nothing with only a high school education, and he ended up creating a magnificently large company that not only created wealth for him but wealth for others. This is the other more important thing that I'm trying to emphasize with my course, that success should not only be defined by the monetary rewards that one gets but also, “what do you give back?” That's what John Johnson did. He made a difference in the world with the creation of his company, he uplifted a group of people in America who desperately needed it. He also created jobs for people who had never had jobs in that industry, but he's one of America's greatest icons.

Thirty years ago when I was a student here I heard him speak. He came to our African-American Student Union conference. That's when I found my purpose in life, when I heard him speak, because what he said at that time was, "All of you in this audience, you have the opportunity to matriculate at the best business school in the world." He said, "The question that I have of you is: what are you going to do with it?" He said, "Here's your answer." He said, "You take that education and you make a lot of money. Then with that money, you uplift your community." Ever since then I knew my purpose in life, and that was to use business and the benefits and all the rewards of business to help uplift my community and help people who are less fortunate than I am, specifically the African-American community. So he's a special man in our country's history and a special man to Harvard Business School.

Kenny: That's a great story. I want to get more into his background too and who he was as a leader, but I'm curious. Was Ebony magazine a fixture in the Rogers household when you were.

Rogers: Oh, absolutely. Come on. You know. Ebony and Jet. I used to sell Jet magazine, the little five-by-seven periodical that we used to have a little satchel on the side of our belts that we could put the Jet magazine in, but Ebonywas in everyone's household. I was just talking to a friend about it. One of the things we cited was the Ebony magazine in your house was a piece of art that would not only be read but it would sit on the front room, living room table, so people could see it. It was a sign. It was a sign that you were part and you were in the know when you had Ebony magazine.

I came from a low-income family with a single parent that was on welfare, never finished high school, so it was not just for the middle class or the upper middle class. It was for all of us. The reason was because it was so aspirational. It was about positivity, and we got a chance to see things and people that we had never seen before; that is, black people who were accomplished and doing extraordinarily well.

Kenny: Johnson shows that approach really because of things that he had experienced as a young man, and the first newspapers that he saw that focused on the black community, they had no pictures in them of black people. Talk about that a little bit.

Rogers: The reality is Johnson was raised at a time, and many of your young listeners don't realize there was a time, in America not only after we were slaves, African-Americans were slaves, but the Jim Crow period, where blacks were legally denied opportunities that everybody else had. During that time there seemed to be and there was an intentional effort to almost dehumanize African-Americans and demonize them. Despite the fact that we had worked for free, the next effort was made to make us look as bad as possible. John Johnson grew up at a time where there literally were rules that stated in the media that the photo of an African-American should never be shown unless it was associated with him or her committing a crime. He also was raised during the Great Depression, where he saw signs being paraded by. For example, an organization called The Black Shirts. It was a white organization that had signs during the Great Depression when 25 percent of—in 1933 25 percent of the white population was unemployed, 50 percent of the black population was unemployed, but he saw people parading around with signs that says, "No jobs for African-Americans," but they used the "N" word, but "No jobs for African-Americans until every white man has a job." Signs that said, "African-Americans, go back to the cotton fields. City jobs are for a white man." John Johnson grew up during that era where he saw images of black people being demonized and also, as we stated earlier, just a legal discrimination of blacks, and everything that was depicted about a black was in a negative fashion.

Kenny: He chose to do the opposite with Ebony magazine.

Rogers: John Johnson, God bless his soul, he's—in a vernacular of the old school words—he was a race man. He believed in the uplifting of his race. John Johnson said, "There's beauty and not only is there beauty in the beautiful color of black," he said, "There's gold there." John Johnson made the decision that “I want to be a part of the solution,” and being a part of the solution in his mind was to show black people in a very positive light so that other blacks could see themselves in a very positive fashion. They could see black role models who were well accomplished who weren't just athletes or entertainers. He had a twofold mission, and that was to create a very successful entrepreneurial endeavor, but also it had some social benefits that he was targeting, and that was the uplifting of the black community as well as educating the white community about the successes of black people and countering all of the negativity that was being out in the public at that time.

Kenny: He didn't shy away either from the more controversial things that were happening around him. In fact, is it a stretch to say that Ebony was sort of the journal of record throughout the Civil Rights Movement?

Rogers: It's not a stretch whatsoever. In fact, it is an absolute fact. One of the seminal instances or occurrences that happened was when a young man, 14 years old, Emmett Till, was raised in Chicago and he was sent to vacation with his family to Mississippi. Emmett Till in 1957—excuse me—1955, goes to visit his family for the summer. Emmett Till ends up being murdered by a group of white men who shoot him in the head, shoot him in the face. They strangle him. They put a 75-pound cotton gin over his neck and threw him in the river. Emmett Till's body was found, and when his body was found, his face was seven times the normal size of his head. His face looked like clay because it was so decomposed. His mother said, "I don't want him buried down here in Mississippi. I want him buried back up in Chicago," and she said, "I want the casket open." She also told John Johnson, "And here are his photos. I want you to take photos of his face, because I want America to see what they did to my baby." John Johnson said “I had to do this,” and that is publicize these photos to show man's inhumanity to man. He published those photos of Emmett Till's face. Throughout the entire Civil Rights Movement Dr. King repeatedly and regularly called Mr. Johnson and said, "Listen, please send photographers and writers down here to cover this." He said specifically, "Some white writers may cover it, but in all likelihood they're not, and even if they do, they're going to cover it from a different slant, so please send reporters down."

Ebony magazine, if we want to look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, you can't ignore Ebony. In fact, if you want to see photos and read articles about it in great details, you must go to the Ebony's archives to get that information.

Kenny: Let's fast forward a little bit and get up into some of the meat of the case. Now, the magazine experiences tremendous growth into the 70s, into the 80s. I actually thought there were a couple of interesting insights that came through to me. One was that the first thing that disintermediated the media industry, the first disruptive force, wasn't the internet. I kept thinking, "Oh, it's the internet." It was television, right?

Rogers: Yes. It's fascinating. Thanks for bringing that up. The first magazine that John Johnson actually founded was called the Negro Digest. The Negro Digest, he founded it in 1942. Ebony was founded in 1945, but the Negro Digest was sort of off of the Reader's Digest, and it was a little bitty handy, like five-by-seven periodical. The Negro Digest had articles. It didn't have a lot of photographs in it. The photographs that it did have were black and white. With the advent of television, John Johnson recognized color was becoming more important, and he decided, as all great business men and women have decided over time, “Well, if disruption is coming, let me disrupt myself.” What he did was he discontinued the Negro Digest and he started Ebony , because he said, "With television people are going to be accustomed to seeing something a little more lifelike, with color and glossiness." You're absolutely right. The internet was not the first disruption. It happened much earlier. If you think about one of the quotes that John Johnson made early in his life, what he said was, something to the effect of, "We have to recognize the fact that technology is happening so fast and news is coming so fast that we must change." He said that in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

Kenny: Yeah, prescient.

Rogers: What we see here—and this is a perfect example, Brian, of what I'm talking about in terms of when we exclude people, brilliant people like John Johnson—what we see here is one of America's foremost entrepreneurs who understood disruption before we started talking about disruption. This was one of America's great entrepreneurs who was able to see things before others saw them, but we've never heard anything about him, for the most part. I knew about him, but it's imperative for you and others to know about him. Look and think about what he did. He was able to survive all the disruption as well as he was able himself to say, "It's about to happen. Let me do it to myself before others do it."

Kenny: Let's talk a little bit about Linda. Daughter of John, right? She gets into the business as well, and now she winds up being the protagonist, who's really dealing with the tremendous disruption caused by the internet to the publishing space.

Rogers: Linda became a CEO in 2002. By 2015 she was faced with the challenge of where to take this company, and the reason was because the entire industry had collapsed, combined with the fact that the economy was in a recession, the greatest recession since the World War II. As a result of that, advertisers were pulling back. Advertisers were putting their money in the internet, advertising on the internet. Then Linda also became aware of the fact that advertisers were paying her a rate that's significantly less than what they were paying white media companies for the same number of viewers. It was sort of what we call in the black community, she was experiencing the black tax. It's kind of ironic that in 2015 she was experiencing it, the same as her father experienced it 70 years earlier. Linda was faced with this great challenge of at a time when media companies are dying, they're being destroyed, Newsweek was sold for one dollar. All the periodicals, all the media companies were facing this crisis, and Linda was no different. The case focuses on what should Linda, as any brilliant business woman would have to do, what should she do?

Kenny: I don't want you to give that away.

Rogers: I will definitely not give it away.

Kenny: Steve, thanks so much for joining me today.

Rogers: It's my pleasure. I thank you for inviting me to participate, and I'm looking forward to participating and being a part of this in the future. Thank you very much.

Kenny: No better way for us to kick off this series. You can find the “Ebony Magazine” case, along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny, your host, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.