For years, Johnson Publishing Co. kept past issues of Ebony and Jet in bound volumes and on microfilm. If someone needed an old article or photo, staff librarians would unearth it from the archives.
The Chicago-based media company that was a pioneer in covering black history and pop culture made a huge digital leap Wednesday, unveiling a partnership with Google Inc. to digitize the archives of Ebony and Jet magazines, making them searchable on the technology giant’s growing database of publications.Many ethnic media outlets see a Web presence as crucial because it can draw readers from outside the community and help followers dig deeper into the issues they care about most. Moreover, ethnic and mainstream publications are seeking younger, tech-savvy readers to grow their readership bases.
“The driver is still print,” said Julian Posada, the founder of Cafe Media, which has print and digital publications catering to young, English-speaking Hispanics. “Most of our money will still come from the magazine. But to build a brand today, you have to surround the reader with all of the digital properties you have.”
In May, Posada left as general manager of the Spanish-language newspaper Hoy to launch the company. Hoy is owned by Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.
Johnson Publishing is an established media company with deep pockets, making it easier to build a brand online. For smaller community news outlets, the challenges are magnified because their funds and manpower are often stretched.
“With ethnic media, a lot of it is mom and pop,” said Edwin Okong’o, communications director at New America Media, an association representing ethnic media. “They have people who have great ideas, but they don’t have the tools to execute these ideas.”
Okong’o is the former editor of Mshale, a monthly tabloid in Minneapolis covering African immigrant communities. During his yearlong stint, he started updating the paper’s Web site several times a day. These efforts helped Mshale get noticed by international outlets like Al Jazeera and BBC when post-election violence erupted in Kenya last year. But paying part-time reporters for more stories and improving the site with photos and videos added expenses.
“That really took a lot of resources,” Okong’o said. “We had IT guys who really designed the Web site we wanted. � [But] every time we went to them it was like, ‘OK, that’s going to cost you.’ “
Okong’o believes ethnic media outlets need to be online. His association is launching an initiative for Los Angeles-based publications that will join them under a common news site and allow them to share stories.
For Eric Easter, Johnson Publishing’s head of digital strategy, the Google partnership allows readers to access a rich historical record that includes nine magazine titles and 20 million photographs documenting 63 years.
“Ebony, in particular, serves as a first draft of history and a very serious way of contextualizing where we are now,” Easter said.
Issues of Ebony and Jet published after 1960 are already available at Books.Google.com. Older issues present a challenge because of their fragility or limited availability. Easter said the magazines are planning a campaign to ask readers “to pull stuff from the basement” and help with the archiving.
Meanwhile, EbonyJet.com is experimenting with other digital tools. The site features an interactive Google map where users can highlight landmarks in their cities.
“How do we take what’s unique to the community and apply normal, everyday tools?” Easter said. “The context of them changes their importance. A Google map is a Google map. But we’re trying to map out black culture and let users participate in finding the points that are not necessarily historical but relevant to you and your neighborhood.”
Gordon Mayer, vice president of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, called EbonyJet.com “one of the most sophisticated ethnic news outlets out there” and said the site reaches younger readers who perhaps grew up with the magazines but are not subscribers.
Mayer’s workshop, which is affiliated with Columbia College, plans to hold training sessions on social media tools for ethnic media outlets.
“The [traditional] business model ain’t working” for mainstream and niche media, he said. “How do you offer more? The obvious answer is to build a stronger community, and the Internet is a key part of that.”
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