Johnson Publishing To Sell Historic Photo Archive For Millions

News & Views | Gerren Keith Gaynor | 01/26/2015 | 09:45 AM EST

Publisher of Ebony magazine puts price tag on 5 million photographs to help stabilize struggling business

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and Johnson Publishing Company is hoping their archives of photographs are worth millions.

The Chicago-based publisher of Ebony magazine has put its entire archive of 5 million photographs up for sale, reports the Chicago Tribune. The historic collection captures 70 years of African-American history, including snapshots of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Billie Holliday.

Johnson Publishing had its collection appraised and recently hired a consultant to shop the iconic images, including a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and daughter, Bernice, taken at his funeral.

, a monthly lifestyle magazine targeting African-Americans, was first published in November 1945. A significant amount of the photographs were taken by the magazine’s staff photographer Moneta Sleet Jr., who followed King from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the 1965 march in Selma.

"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."

Rogers, who served as the social secretary for President Barack Obama, is leading Johnson Publishing as it transitions from print to digital as the magazine business as a whole continues to dwindle.

The decision to put the archives on sale is a strategic business move to stabilize the company’s rocky foundation amid ad revenue declines over recent years. Just last year, the publisher's stable Jet magazine went off shelves after 63 years and is now digital only. The company hopes the sale will bring in about $40 million.

The Tribune reports:

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.

Though the company faces its challenges, all hope isn’t lost. Rogers said the ad decline at Ebony was 8 percent last year, but added that the magazine is raising ad rates for 2015 and that 60 percent of sponsors have agreed to pay more to stay in the magazine.

Johnson Publishing’s decision to put its archives up for sales will surely not be embraced by everyone. Some critics have already lamented that the sale is yet another example of the crippling of Black ownership.

Writer Luvvie Ajayi questioned why the publishing company didn’t consider other options:

Why are they not in a museum already being displayed for the masses? Why isn’t there a photography exhibit curated by Johnson Publishing Company, charging people to come see moments in time captured award-winning photographers over the years? Why aren’t these pics being used on the EBONY website as a weekly feature?

Selling something as valuable as your photo archive because of an immediate need for cash feels short-sighted, especially since photos like this will only appreciate with time. Letting them go now for a sudden influx of cash can’t be a good long-term strategy to sustain the company. Because in 5 years, what else will you need to liquidate to stay afloat? PLUS, that archive is worth way more.

Still, it appears Johnson Publishing is forging through with the sale. In 2012, Johnson Publishing began offering select photos for sale from its collection, according to the Tribune, and also pursued licensing to other media on a limited basis. The company believes an outright sale of the images could be the best way to monetize the assets.

Getty Images, a 20-year-old company that licenses its library of 170 million assets to businesses and media outlets, is the largest of its kind. However, Rogers said JPC's archives could be the "black Getty”--but she doesn’t think the company should enter that space.

"One of the things that we've learned is we need to stick with what we're good at," Rogers said. "We're writers, we're creative folks, we produce a magazine ... geared toward that African-American experience. Let's stick as close to that as we can."

(Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images) 

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