By: Kathleen Criner & Jane Wilson
An Interview with Baltimore’s Jake Oliver
Jack 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.
Rare Archives Make a Unique Web Site
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.
Up to 14,000 Hits a Day
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 compete against services directed at national communities of interests? “I think the market for national news is already taken by big players. For us, the role is switched; when we speak, we speak to all Afro and black Americans. We have a potentially far greater role.” “Our objective is to become the trade name for African-American news. If people — whoever they are ? want to understand news from an Afro-American perspective, they will come to the AFROAmeric@. I want it to be the household name for people of color — a national microphone for black people. I don’t want to be known as a newspaper — I want to become known as an information company. We will use the Internet as an important tool to achieve that goal. We are coming out with a national electronic edition. It will cover regional news.”
“People from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hill will share their thoughts and experiences. We will eliminate news from the D.C. and Baltimore papers [on the site]. However, we’ll add an entertainment segment that has regional and local components, and work with other black papers to provide news from other regions while still maintaining a national focus.”
Content aimed at children is a major feature of your service. Why?
“Last October, I went to MIT’s Media Lab Consortium, where executives are invited to take a peek at new lab experiments. The segments that attracted my attention were the ones devoted to kids and newspapers. I realized we were missing an important part of our market. I thought, this is where the electricity will come from — the excitement will come from addressing kids.”
“MIT was finding ways to teach so that learning won’t be a drudgery, as it was for us. Interactivity and high graphics change the game. We’re looking to build curriculum for math and chemistry, to create more imaginative environments.”
“Our Kid’s Zone is a small first step. We also set up an Internet room in the paper that kids visit. In 15 to 20
seconds, the kids are bored if you don’t have something they regard as interesting or entertaining. When we
introduced the Lolo Legends game [about a lost ladybug caught in a maze], we saw an amazing difference.
Once we had to turn the computers off and pry the kids’ fingers from the keyboards. If the content doesn’t
have the glue effect, it’s not going to be effective.”
You’ve mentioned an Internet department and an Internet room. How big is that department and how is it
positioned in the organization?
“The Internet department reports to me. It has a full-time manager and a fulltime artist, as well as some part-time students and freelancers who work on a project basis.”
“For example, we are doing a piece on Duke Ellington for the site’s black history section. We hired a researcher to go through the volumes of archive material, and we are using some outside material, as well. The researcher will work with the writer and artist for a month to pull it all together.”
“But we need the full-time staff just to put the content of the paper [online], so right now our [online] editions
are not current. In order to do a special project — say, like the one we did to provide a black perspective on
the Olympics — we have to make trade- offs. We have limited resources and we’re always stretching. It took
two months to plan the Olympic feature and figure out how to do it. Sometimes what we do works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Most of the audience today on the Internet is white and male. What opportunities do you see for the Net to
become a medium to reach a diverse audience?
“African Americans and people of color will jump on the Net in ways that will shock people. The impediments for many people have been cost and complexity — AOL and AT&T’s World Net are popular because they’re simple. In the next two years, you could see an explosion in use by the African- American community once costs come down.”
The Afro uses many advanced tools. How do you decide when to deploy cutting edge technology that many
of your users may not be able to use, and when do you do so in order to meet advertiser or early adopter
“We have a lot of discussions about what to use. I use leading edge stuff in parts of the site because I
generate activity in other parts of the site with good content.”
“Using new tools doesn’t pose a threat to the overall home page. For example,
I chose Shockwave after talking to industry leaders. I learned Microsoft expects it to be part of browser
technology in six months and that people won’t have to download a special plug in to use it. By then, I will
have a critical mass of gems and educational tools to captivate users. I depend on what’s [at the site] to
draw people, and at the same time, I want to be a half inch over the edge.”
What companies should newspapers watch?
“People should watch Microsoft, it’s vision is awesome. MSNBC knocked me out. People shouldn’t ignore
[its] Personal Home Page. It’s very impressive when you can retrieve local TV and movie listings tailored to
your ZIP code. I found I could get local movie listings tailored to within three miles of my house. And MSNBC
did this quickly. It’s a database management process that’s very sophisticated — not just a bunch of people
keying in information. Also, MSNBC had to have agreements with movie chains and motivate them to
update listings regularly.”
“The database management technology is very cutting edge. We could use [it] to facilitate job listings. We
could do more than post jobs — we could connect people who need jobs with vacancies. We can do it today,
but it requires tricks. We are going to be shocked by what Oracle and Microsoft are going to do.”
What do you see ahead for the Net?
“Certain aspects frighten me. The crime potential is frightening and it’s going to be a challenge. People
can’t take hacking too seriously. I live in the middle of the hoods, so I see how organized they are.”
“I recently observed a large group of people transacting drugs. They were lined up in the alley with guards
on each end. There were two lines — one for crack and the other for heroin. They searched folks in line. At
no point in the transactions was one person holding drugs and money at the same time, except for users.
The drugs were hidden at the end of line. I thought some organizational genius was behind this.”
“The Net will eliminate geography. The work is going to have to deal with the negative side, as well as the
positive — we need to think about both.”
What’s your advice for newspaper publishers?
“The challenge is squarely at the feet of the publisher. Without motivation, their papers don’t stand a chance.
The Web is more than a threat, it’s a gigantic opportunity. For small newspapers, it represents the first time
in a hundred years that they have a fresh, new opportunity. No one is going to get rich overnight. I am
impressed and motivated by the majesty of the technology. It brings benefits and opportunities for business
to be more effective. I can’t wait.”
Kathleen Criner is a former senior vice president and Jane Wilson is a former staff member of the
Newspaper Association of America. As Criner & Wilson they write a monthly column for the print edition of
Editor & Publisher Magazine and also provide new media consultant services to newspaper corporations.
Either can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.