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Jet Still Flying High With Readers After 50 Years

Media: By sticking to its original mission of spotlighting black achievements, the pocket-size magazine has remained profitable.

January 20, 2002|HERBERT G. McCANN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHICAGO — When Jet magazine first appeared in 1951, its profiles of black achievers countered negative images of blacks in mainstream media and inspired support for the civil rights movement.

"One day, the world will say that Jet magazine was one of the great victories of black folks," comedian and activist Dick Gregory said. "Historians will be able to get back issues of Jet and Ebony magazine and see what happened during the civil rights movement."

More than 50 years later, Jet founder John H. Johnson said the pocket-size magazine is holding fast to his original idea: spotlighting black achievements and reporting national and international events of importance to the black community.

"I feel good that we've survived when so many competitors have come and gone," said Johnson, who at 83 remains chief executive of the publishing company bearing his name. "There have been many attempts to copy [the magazine]. We worked hard and did a better job of covering the news."

Jet's first cover featured the wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson wearing a mink. In addition to articles on the anti-colonial movement in Nigeria and Ralph Bunche winning the Nobel Peace Prize, it featured Edna Robinson's list of ways other black women could get a mink--her facetious pointers included getting a cheating husband to buy one as a peace offering and raising the animals themselves.

That combination of the whimsical and the serious is a formula Jet has followed faithfully.

The weekly was at its most grave when covering blacks' battle for equal rights. Its reporting of the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till is considered a defining moment of the civil rights movement.

Till was visiting Mississippi from Chicago when he was kidnapped and murdered, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Jet published a picture of the teen's badly mangled body in his casket.

"Its stories and its pictures galvanized blacks into supporting the civil rights movement," said Leroy Bryant, a Chicago State University history professor who in the 1960s sold Jet on Chicago's streets and subways.

The magazine also deterred opponents of the civil rights movement, contends Gregory, a frequent participant in protests.

"White racists knew they could do anything to black folks and it would never be reported in the white press," Gregory said. "But with Jet around, that changed. The number of lynchings declined after the Emmett Till pictures were published."

For Jet and its sister publication, Ebony, which was founded in 1941, to effectively cover the civil rights movement in the South, Johnson teamed a black writer with a white photographer.

"Whites wouldn't talk to a black reporter, so he would talk primarily to blacks," Johnson said. "And no one could figure out who the white photographer was working for. They would meet at night and exchange information."

Earl G. Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, said Johnson accomplished a major feat when he launched Jet and fought off competitors.

"Whether it was the tragedy of Martin Luther King's assassination or Colin Powell ascending to secretary of State, or a high school student breaking a record, Jet is there all the time in a timely way," Graves said.

But Jet's reputation does not make it immune to criticism. Some say the magazine's focus on celebrity and brief articles comes at the expense of weightier issues. It is a criticism Linda Johnson Rice--Johnson Publishing Co.'s president and Johnson's daughter--acknowledges and rejects.

"The book has only 64 pages, in which you can only do so much," she said. "We like to keep it short. If a story warrants more in-depth coverage, we will do it."

Those short and to-the-point articles first made Jet popular, Bryant added.

"It imparted information to a generation that was not as literate as their children," he said. "They were like my father, who came to Chicago from Arkansas with a third-grade education. Jet gave them information quickly and precisely."

And then there's the "Beauty of the Week," a photo of a shapely woman in a bathing suit that gives Jet a hint of cheesecake. An attempt to rid the magazine of the feature was reversed after a deluge of complaints.

"It's probably the first place where readers, whether male or female, look," Rice said.

Fifty years of tradition and Jet's readership are helping it as the magazine industry is battered by a sharp decline in ad pages.

Advertising spending already was dropping off due to a slowing economy, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have industry leaders worried that the decline will worsen.

Jet--which has a weekly circulation of about 950,000, although the publisher claims readership is higher because copies are shared--ended 2001 with ad sales relatively flat, Rice said.

Samir A. Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor, said ethnic magazines generally are less affected by ad declines because their incomes largely come from subscriptions and readers are loyal even in bad economic times.

"With all the changes in the magazine industry, it has been constant," Husni added. "Any magazine that can remain constant and profitable is doing something right."

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