Desirée Rogers: ‘I Have Learned Who I Am’

HER NEXT ACT: After a sometimes controversial run as White House social secretary, Desirée Rogers is back in Chicago to tackle a new challenge. reviving Johnson Publishing and its Ebony and Jet magazines.

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Designed in 1969 by the architect John Moutoussamy, the 11-story building that houses Johnson Publishing, at 820 South Michigan Avenue, is the first structure built in Chicago’s Loop by an African American man since Jean Baptiste Point DuSable raised a log cabin in 1722. A popular tourist attraction and home to the country’s largest corporate collection of black American and African art, the interior has a Swinging Sixties vibe, yet during a recent midday visit, both the massive lobby and the top-floor lunchroom resembled ghost towns.

Rogers’s office, on the eighth floor, is a long, narrow slice of a corner. Unlike her former desk in the East Wing, which held two Hermès notebooks and a silver pen cup, her workspace here is devoid of personal touches. In fact, at the moment, the surface remains bare. It has been two weeks since Linda Johnson Rice named Rogers as the new CEO of Johnson Publishing, the world’s largest publishing company owned and operated by African Americans (Rice remains as chairman of the board). The time has gone by in a whirlwind of meetings and strategizing. Rogers hasn’t even gotten business cards yet.

“I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to work with two of the most exciting brands—Ebony and Jet magazines—in this country,” she says. “I’m African American; these brands mean a lot to me. And to work with my best friend? What comes along better than this?” Sitting at a small, round table in her office, Rogers has an open manner (“You can ask me anything,” she says), and her wardrobe is professional but understated: a cream-colored pantsuit with a navy silk knit T underneath, a black-and-white enamel bangle, and navy peep-toe heels offering a glimpse of her Chanel Blue Satin pedicure. But the task ahead of her is more daunting than her demeanor might suggest.

This year marks Ebony’s 65th anniversary, but the circulation numbers and revenue for both Ebony and Jet took a beating in the first half of 2010, with a 14 percent drop for the monthly Ebony, to 1.1 million readers, and a 12 percent drop for the weekly Jet, to 762,000. (Ebony reached its peak circulation of 1.9 million in 2002.) While all print media are under siege in the Internet age, statistics indicate that the circulation dive for Ebony is rapidly accelerating. “I know what you have to write,” says Rogers. “‘Oh my gosh, their ads have fallen off, and their subscriptions have fallen off.’ What happened? I believe we could have done more. We could have been more aggressive. The print publication business is similar to the utilities business, I think, in that things have been done the same way for a long time. Now it’s time to take a look in the mirror. I know what I see: No other publications are in better positions to represent African Americans than Ebony and Jet. OK, we’ve been a little sleepy, but now we’re awake.”

Founded in 1945 by John H. Johnson, Ebony was always positioned as an upbeat celebration of African American personalities, politicians, and celebrities. The magazine’s initial run of 25,000 copies sold out easily. Johnson started Jet in 1951 as a weekly news digest, and it remains the country’s only weekly news-oriented magazine that focuses on African Americans. In its early days, Jet covered the burgeoning activism of the civil rights movement; it also offered informative articles telling readers how to register to vote or how to find college scholarship money. As other national magazines shut down, Johnson’s ability to focus on a niche market and to sell advertising directly aimed at that audience enabled his magazines to stay healthy—until recently. (Another key part of the Johnson empire is Fashion Fair Cosmetics, founded in 1973 by Johnson and his wife, Eunice. With makeup and skin-care lines geared toward African American customers, Fashion Fair is sold at department stores and U.S. military bases.)

Johnson groomed his daughter, Linda, to succeed him, and in 1987 she was named chief operating officer of the company. (His son, John Jr., died in 1981 of sickle cell anemia.) With an MBA from Northwestern University and an unpretentious sensibility, Linda Johnson Rice took over as CEO and chairman of the board in 2008. But the recent years have dealt some blows: Her father died in 2005, and her mother passed away in 2010; the Internet deflated print publications, particularly those, including Ebony and Jet, that didn’t quickly embrace the web as a way to engage a younger generation.

Since February 2009, Johnson Publishing has weathered a number of cutbacks, many stemming from a managerial edict requiring every employee to reapply for his or her job. Top management has moved in and out. Bryan Monroe, former assistant vice president for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, came in as editorial director in 2006, but his job was eliminated in February 2009. At the same time, three of the four managing editors of Ebony and Jet accepted buyout options. Anne Sempowski Ward, a former assistant vice president of African American marketing at Coca-Cola, joined Johnson Publishing in 2007 as chief operating officer and took maternity leave in early 2010. The first week of June 2010, Rice hired Rogers as a consultant, and one of her first assignments was to fill in for Ward. Within six weeks of Rogers’s arrival, Ward resigned. Shortly thereafter, the creative director, Harriette Cole, who had joined the company in 2007, followed. Cole’s duties have now been assumed by the newly installed Ebony editor Amy DuBois Barnett, formerly of Harper’s Bazaar.

“Did I just hire my best friend? Yes, I did,” says Rice. “Is our friendship why I hired her? No. She was the most qualified. Period.” Rice is quick to note that, in recent years, Johnson Publishing “didn’t always execute everything as perfectly as we could have. But now we have our footing, and it is the perfect time for Desirée. She loves a challenge, she is honest in her thoughts and feelings, and she is a master at branding and marketing. And she has great brands to work with here. Plus, you have two women coming together—that’s a powerful statement. [The job] may sound fluffy, but I know this is going to be hard work.”

“We are going to reshape Ebony to appeal to a younger demographic,” says Barnett. “I would like the magazine to ignite conversation in the African American community and beyond. And one way to do that is to engage our very best thinkers to share their opinions in our pages. Desirée has her finger on the pulse of what African Americans are interested in and concerned about.” While shy about revealing any plans still in flux, Rogers stresses the need for Ebony to develop an Internet presence that allows a web-savvy audience to voice their own opinions. “You can’t dictate to younger generations now,” she says. “That’s not the way the world works anymore. We need to create a dialogue with readers, both online and by taking our presence out into the community.” One example she offers is the Ebony Education Roundtable held at the University of Chicago this summer, which included Ron Huberman, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and Pam Goren, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. A standing-room-only crowd filled the room, and MSNBC aired a taped version in August. A printed transcript of the event appeared in Ebony’s September issue. “We will continue to be actively involved in the community, because that is how we revitalize our brand,” says Rogers.

She feels her career is built on brand development, particularly working with brands that she calls “perhaps somewhat mature. Look at my work at the Illinois State Lottery, where we really transformed that business from the Lotto game—which was our flagship—into the instant tickets. We went from selling 300 million tickets annually to 600 million by creating experiences for people. Then I went to Peoples Energy, which was also a challenge. Customers needed us, but they hated us. And the challenge was to improve communications. That was a ten-year body of work for me, which culminated in the first rate increase Peoples Energy has had in 13 years. You don’t get a rate increase if you’re doing a horrible job.”

Despite her rough exit from Washington, Rogers is similarly proud of the work she did there. “My goal was to make the White House a relevant place to the people of this country,” she says. “And I think I built a good foundation.”

Still, at times, she feels she has survived a firestorm. But then the past usually fades into soft focus. “I was part of something extraordinary, and I continue to do what I can to be part of it,” she says. “We did our work. We did our jobs. So it would be selfish of me to even think of what was fair and what wasn’t fair. I don’t concern myself with that. I’m over it.”

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4 years ago
Posted by Garl

I was almost shocked by the open and repetitive arrogance of Ms. Rogers. There is no way she has climbed the ladder based on talent and intelligence -- none at all. A woman who had would never speak the way she does, about herself and others.

4 years ago
Posted by hiparchitectmomof3

Ms.Rogers's title while in tenure at the White House would more appropriately have been 'Social Spectacle Secretary'. How she managed to undermine the dignity of the office of President by making herself the object of attention is disgraceful. Letitia Baldridge would be horrified. Ms. Rogers certainly is an intelligent women, however her previous leaderships positions were mostly 'fluff.' Has she the broad and deep management experience to lead Johnson Publishing in the areas of complex human resource decisions, Mergers and Acquisitions, structured debt transactions, corporate valuations, legal concerns and the like? A more appropriate role would have been Exec VP of Creative development, in which she could use her love for fashion and design as professional strengths. Running a distinguished and revered company such as Johnson Publishing is a 100-hr a week job. Is Ms. Rogers prepared for this level of intensity, or would that get in the way of her personal social agenda?

4 years ago
Posted by mayogirl

must agree with you on roger's arrogance.. Woman dont know #rap on how to run a business, only on how to cut departments and get her bonus. She's yet to learn who she is, and to say "there is a bias against people who have a certain look or style. I have fought this all of my this country,:... PLEASE... do not put yourself in that category...not even close..
again, if it wasn't for her ex who gave her a push in Chicago, she would be .... NADA.... zip....

4 years ago
Posted by Chicago Rick

She did such a fine job bringing slime like the reality show trash Salahi's and such inside the white house, in fact ran things for her brief time just like the last dem who was there with the Slick * any slime with a million dimes can come inside for taxpayer paid good time.

4 years ago
Posted by Chicago Rick

Anyone as close to Obama as she is should be kept as far away from someone else's money as humanly possible. Another Affirmative Action product also like Obama who've been pushed through the ranks as Scranton Joe Biden once said "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Especially in a city full of African American shyster reverends up the ying yang leading their so called 'peeps' to wander in the wilderness with hands out and heads down and pockets empty while filling theirs.

I pray every day the many able but poor dems in the African American community wake up to take their waiting 'slice of the pie' that dems think they cannot earn by them realizing they're being used and abused by liberals who purposely keep them down in order to hold keep them enslaved to the dem vote through welfare addictions.

No one keeps them down more than the Triple J's Jackson's and Sharptongues and Farrakhans who they let 'speak' for them when they don't.

4 years ago
Posted by Bopcity

Whenever questions arise about the need for civil rights warriors like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpon, a voice like Chicgo Ricks emerges to provide an unequivocal answer.

4 years ago
Posted by Apres Ski

I don't see how she can make me pick up a copy of Ebony or Jet! Now that she's the head, that's 2 more magazines I can do without unless someone gives them to me as a gift. I will not buy those magazines on my own.

She is really arrogant to presume we're going to follow her lead & buy those magazines or what she's trying to sell us in this article. She might have snowed the reporter who wrote this but not me.

As MAYOGIRL already wrote, she only knows how to cut & get her promotions and move on. She should have reorganized Ebony & Jet first, put out a couple of editions of each magazine and get a beat on what people think of the new magazines. She doesn't know how to stay out of the limelight. She's upstaging the magazines just like she did in the White House.

Here, the focus is on her & that's not where it belongs. She's supposed to be reorganizing magazines, not our attitudes towards her. And can't she just do the job without doing a photo spread? Editor is a behind the scenes job, not a photo shoot. She doesn't get it but she keeps getting jobs where she thinks she's supposed to be out front physically instead of behind the scenes and letting the magazines speak for her. She's clueless.

Again . . . she has failed big and in public!!

4 years ago
Posted by sdg

Right on Ms. Rice. You did good. Ms. Rogers is everything you know she is. She has nothing to hide from. As a woman and plus being a woman of color I am so proud. And you know that the Obamas appreciate her also, I feel it (smile). So you smart intelligent women have done well.

4 years ago
Posted by CAV1

"I think I confuse people,” she says. “In this country, there is a bias against people who have a certain look or style. I have fought this all of my life. People only see this package, and it’s a tall and vocal package. So people think, Wait a minute, you can’t be this stylish and intelligent, too. I take people out of their comfort zone.”

Gee, and so humble and modest as well. Ms. Rogers appears to be a reasonably intelligent woman, but unfortunately she chooses to get by using her good looks and marrying well, and taking fluff jobs like Lottery Girl, rather than utilizing the intelligence she claims to have in such measure...

4 years ago
Posted by Marcus Perry

Brava, Desiree! I think you're bright, well-educated, talented and beautiful. And oh-so stylish! And it seems most of the negative comments about you here are of envy, jealousy, if not outright hatred. Most of the women here probably wish they could BE you. And the men? They would love to date a woman of your well-trained and disciplined caliber. And a natural beauty, at that.

Ignore their squawking, please. And continue to by your FABULOUS self!

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