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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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