As empires go, his is a small one-64th in the Ad Age 300 ranking of top magazines by gross revenue. Ebony has a circulation of 1.93 million, revenues of $73.8 million and no diversification into additional media forms.
But as a model of black achievement made against steep odds, it's a formidable one.
It has been Mr. Johnson's editorial mission to see that the march of black achievement is noted, recorded and honored.
"We lust after success stories," he says, "and always ask, `How did you do it?"'
"We're not really a celebrity book. When I was a kid my mom would give me castor oil in orange juice so I'd swallow it. We may put celebrities on or cover, but it's orange juice; when readers get inside, there's still plenty of castor oil."
The sustaining power of Ebony spans not only decades but shifts in entymology of race, from "colored people" to "Negro" to "black" and "African-American." Its beginnings were in an era when people like Mr. Johnson were called "a credit to their race," a homage in a time when credit of another kind was scarce indeed to a black entrepreneur.
The first issue of Ebony came out in November 1945, but it would take awhile before advertisers began to get a glimmer of what seemed obvious to Mr. Johnson-that blacks were consumers and would appreciate being treated as such. On this simple premise, he made history.
"I've looked at the readership data over the last 8 years," says Jim Guthrie, exec VP of the Magazine Publishers of America. "I can tell you that the category of African-Amercian magazines has grown at three times the rate of all magazines. And Ebony's audience has grown with the category."
So have its advertisers. In 1946, a page color in Ebony cost about $3,000. Today, it's about $48,000, and with no assist, Mr. Johnson notes, from affirmative action.
"We've never needed it," says Mr. Johnson, noting that advertisers buy in Ebony not to contribute to a black-owned enterprise but because it meets their business goals. "I'm a salesman. And I sold myself and the company...... I said let me offer you consumers who can help improve your bottom line."
It wasn't always that way. Mr. Johnson, who had already learned the basics of the magazine business publishing Negro Digest in the early '40s, made a bold decision when he launched Ebony: He accepted no advertising.
"I felt I had to have something of value first," he says. "I wanted to meet the prevailing standards. I never wanted them lowered for me. The standards in the magazine business were membership in the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which meant I had to wait a year before becoming a member.
"When I called a potential advertiser, I never made buying Ebony a matter of conscience, only business."
His earliest advertiser was Liggett & Myers' Chesterfield cigarettes. Today, Ebony carries a wide range: A recent issue pushes Procter & Gamble's Crest and Colgate-Palmolive's Colgate toothpastes; Chesebrough-Pond's Vaseline; Chrysler's Cirrus and General Motors' Pontiac.
Most of these advertisers today use black models in their African-American targeted ads. But back in the '50s, it was Mr. Johnson who persuaded his national advertisers to begin using black models in Ebony.
"It's so simple," he says. "People can accept a message better is it's delivered by someone like themselves."
Ebony always has lived on a dual advertising base. First, the companies that make products used exclusively by blacks and wish to target only black consumers, and second the big advertisers who make products for whom targeting the black consumer specifically once seemed redundant.
Mr. Johnson says he could never have survived on the first; it was essential he have the second, too.
"One of the reasons I waited [the standard year] for ABC membership was to get that second group," he insists.
In getting them, Mr. Johnson had to challenge some of the core beliefs of white corporate America. Going after black consumers was "tantamount to going into a foreign market."
"This was a policy matter that only a CEO could decide," he recalls. "The ad agencies didn't have the power. You couldn't expect them to recommend a black schedule in 1945 without knowing what the client wanted."
So Mr. Johnson went directly to the advertisers.
"Once a policy was established that the agency was free to run ads wherever they saw fit, then I could sell to agencies," he recalls.
Then the process started all over again. Mr. Johnson remembers it well.
"That's when I learned there was an art of dealing with overprotective agency secretaries. [Foote, Cone & Belding co-founder Fairfax] Cone's secretary said she couldn't make any appointments for him," he says.
"But I was persistent. So she tipped me off one day that every Sunday he took the 20th Century Limited to New York and had a drink in the lounge before dinner. I became a regular on the 20th Century, and Fax and I became good friends. He opened the doors to Foote, Cone & Belding and later made a movie for us about the importance of the black consumer."
Elsewhere Mr. Johnson also was persistent.
"Our advertising guys would go to Leo Burnett [Co.], but they never listened. So I called Mr. Burnett one day," says Mr. Johnson. "I told him that I didn't object to his media people not buying, but they won't listen. And Mr. Burnett said, `Johnson, I can't make 'em buy. But I can make 'em listen.' And he did just that."
"We've been getting business from Burnett ever since," Mr. Johnson says.
"We certainly listen today," says Renetta McCann, VP-media director at Burnett. "I think [Ebony] remains as vibrant as ever. A penetration of 2 million in a segment making up only 12% of the population is remarkable coverage."
One early problem was that most major advertisers assumed they were already covering black consumers in their radio and TV schedules.
"But they weren't," Mr. Johnson points out. "Black people may have been buying some of these products, but I said if you extend a personal invitation to them, they will buy your product out of proportion to your competitors. You will increase your share of the black marketplace."
It was a powerful argument.
Mr. Johnson was enough of a businessman to see no irony in the fact that one of the first national advertisers to buy Ebony turned out to be Liggett, a tobacco company deeply ingrained in the culture of the Old South.
"Money trumps racism almost every time. I never had a problem with anybody I was making money for. They gave you respect if you were making money," he reasons.
Cigarette advertising still poses no problem for Mr. Johnson-whose magazine pages boast Philip Morris' Virginia Slims and Brown & Williamson's Kool, among others. Nor does liquor advertising from the likes of Seagram's Crown Royal and Chivas Regal, despite statements of some black leaders who have attacked some breweries for targeting stronger alcoholic beverages to blacks.
Instead, Mr. Johnson finds that attitude condescending, as if black consumers are less able than whites to make responsible purchase decisions.
"I don't think we ought to appoint ourselves censors of what people do," he says. "Those people have a right to criticize liquor ads as much as others have a right to drink liquor. And I have a right to run the ads."
That philosophy has led Mr. Johnson to his comfortable, modern quarters on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Space flows freely as the air between a reception area, two conference rooms, an office and 60-foot-wide veranda facing the lake. His office resembles an art gallery: An avid collector of work from black artists, even the office restrooms are reported to showcase art.
The walls are also scattered with some of the trappings of his success-honorary doctorates, membership in assorted halls of fame and other honors.
In the floors below, about 10% percent of Johnson Publishing's employees are white. Mr. Johnson says he wants an integrated staff, adding that no white employee can be fired without his personal review.
But he is not strident on the matter. "I don't think [most] people conspire to discriminate," he says. "They hire people like themselves because they want to be comfortable. I think we have to allow for that."