Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Big Niches for Small Papers

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Big Niches for Small Papers

Article excerpt

JAKE OLIVER HAS some impressive assets: an undergraduate degree from Fisk and a J.D. from Columbia; the presidency of the Maryland/D.C./Delaware Press Association; top slots -- chairman, CEO and publisher of the Afro-American Co. of Baltimore City which owns 9,000- and 11,000-circulation weeklies in Washington and Baltimore, respectively.

Although he heads a family business rooted in tradition -- the Afro has been operating continuously for more than a century -- Oliver is convinced that new media are central to his company's future.

But he's also a pragmatist, who, a few years ago, exchanged his pinstripes for a sweat suit and sneakers when he began laying out the Afro's front pages to see how automation could save the paper some money

He recently closed the Afro's Richmond, Va., paper; acknowledges impending competition from Our World News, a start-up targeting a national audience of affluent Black readers, and concedes he'd have never opened the Afro's Web site without its archives.

And those archives may be among Oliver's most valuable assets. They include letters from Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes; telegraph dispatches from the Scottsboro boys' trial -- what Oliver calls the O.J. case of the '30s; material on Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, the Black Panthers; in short, a collection that could bring curators to the Afro's door.

The archives have also helped bring 12,000 to 14,000 hits a day to the Afro's Web site (http://www.afroam.org.). Launched in august of 1994 with a black history anthology of World War II articles, the site has won a hit-building review from Interactive Age, an award from the Newspaper Association of America, and sponsorship dollars from AT&T, among others.

Along the way, Oliver has become an evangelist for the Web. We talked with him recently about niche services and other new media opportunities for small-circulation papers.

What made you decide to put the Afro on the Web?

Trying to figure out how we can disseminate our news without the expense of print. About four years ago, I attended an Internet seminar at Comdex [the national computer trade show]. It was clear that the Internet was no longer just a place to play games. It was a place where we at the Afro could expand the distribution of news and share various parts of our extensive Afro archives. The more we learned, the more we began to see the possibilities.

Who uses your site and what's been the response to it?

We never got hate mail, although we expected it. We assumed we d get 300 to 400 callers and we could tell from [early] e-mail and log-on counts that people liked it. By the summer of '95, we guessed that 80% of our audience was white. However, when we put up the bulletin board and asked specific questions, we realized a definable segment was African American. We were creating an intense following in the black community.

How have advertising revenues evolved and what other revenue sources are you exploring?

We have ad sponsors and we create content for others. We have also learned there's a million miles difference between selling on the Internet and print. We assumed we could transplant ads easily. However, given the interactivity and trackability of the Web, it's more like coupons than print ads. We're selling classifieds now, but I believe they will disappear in print over time. I'd like to see us break even in a year.

However, you need to weigh your choices. I am not interested in doing home pages for everyone because I can only do so much with limited resources. It would slow momentum on other major projects and that, in the long run, would put me at a competitive disadvantage.You have to take each step carefully

The Afro obviously has some unique content which appeals to a national audience. Do you think newspapers which have more traditional local content can compote against services directed at national communities of interests? …

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