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Ebony Sees Traction Under Desirée Rogers

Eighteen months after Rogers took the helm of Johnson Publishing Co., the publisher’s flagship property is showing signs of a turnaround.

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Eighteen months ago, not long after leaving the White House, Desirée Rogers had a big problem on her hands. She had just been appointed chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co., and the publisher’s flagship property, Ebony magazine, was in deep distress. Ebony had missed its rate base repeatedly over the previous eight years; ad pages plunged a jaw-dropping 39 percent the previous year, and she had a magazine that was teetering on the brink.

“I found a group of executives who lost their way a little bit,” said Rogers, who added that things had gotten a “bit stale.”

“They needed a new leader,” she continued. “They needed someone to come in and say, ‘OK guys, that’s over. Now what are we going to do? How are we going to rebuild this business?’”

Rogers had to go about dramatically retooling the place. She needed a new publisher and brought in former OK publisher Stephen Barr, who went ahead and “dismantled the ad sales team in place,” she said. Rogers hired an outside firm to fix the circulation problem.

“You can’t make it up!” said Rogers, referring to the rate-base woes. “You can’t be like, ‘Whoopsies, I missed two months, Desirée! What can we do now?’ That’s it, you’ve been measured. OK?”

Ebony’s editor in chief, Amy DuBois Barnett, oversaw a redesign last April and is now in the process of “bringing the book back to life,” said Rogers.

So far, 18 months into her job, there are some signs of life for Rogers’ Ebony: The magazine finished 2011 with a solid ad page bump — an uptick of 8.6 percent. After narrowly missing its rate base in the first half of 2011 by 1.1 percent — it had missed it by 20.2 percent in the second half of 2010 — the magazine finally met its circulation demands in the second half last year.

And starting Tuesday, ebony.com unveiled a redesign by Code and Theory, the Web designers who created the supersleek designs for vogue.com and The Daily Beast.

“We made a decent investment on it,” said Rogers.

Rogers is starting to feel confident in the turnaround.

“Listen, it’s a good story,” she said. “It did much better.”

She’s equally bullish on Ebony’s prospects for 2012.

“We’re going to do better than last year, that’s for sure,” she said. “The goal is much higher than it was last year.”

On the one hand, Rogers was an odd choice for Johnson’s ceo. She brought no media or publishing experience at a moment in which the industry — particularly niche publications — was at its knees. On the other hand, it made plenty of sense. The company, founded in 1942, was a mom-and-pop operation that was being run by Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of the founders. After Rogers left her post as social secretary for the White House shortly after the party-crasher mini-scandal, Rice, her best friend (“my very best friend,” Rogers described of Rice, in a recent issue of BusinessWeek) asked her to come in and take a look at her struggling company. After a brief period as serving as an adviser, Rogers was appointed ceo.

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