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New site for African Americans

An ambitious new Web-based subscription service will be aimed at African Americans, another attempt to capture a potentially lucrative niche market.

An ambitious new Web-based subscription service aimed at African Americans will be launched in February, another attempt to capture a potentially lucrative niche market.

American Visions Media (AVMI), publishers of the upscale African-American Museums Association magazine and the Thomson Corporation have teamed up to create what they are calling the "creation of the world's largest online service designated by and for the African American community."

But to live up to that promise, the new site will have to do what few online services have been able to do: charge Netizens subscriptions, even though they generally have little brand loyalty. All of its sites will be accessible through the Web and members will pay an annual fee (under $75) to get behind firewalls for proprietary content, according to Gary Puckrein, president of AVMI, which runs the Black forum on CompuServe.

Puckrein said the site will attract members the same way most sites attract them: with compelling content, including areas with virtual classrooms, RealAudio streaming, electronic commerce, chat forums, and historical information.

"We are going after people who are online and there are over a million African Americans online," Puckrein said. "We've done a fair amount of market testing as well. There's a market out there interested in this kind of content."

The African American community is just one specialty group on which Web developers are increasingly focusing their attention. In this world of increasing competition for the attentions of fickle surfers, services try to draw loyal members by catering to their specific needs and interests, whether those are product-related, regional, or based on ethnicity.

David Ellington, president of NetNoir, considered one of the premier Web sites catering to the African American community with a popular forum on AOL, said there is plenty of room for more online services catering to the African American community.

But he doubted that people would be willing to pay a subscription fee for a service when there is so much free content available on the Web. "You want to be an online service and charge people?" he asked. "Go for it. I seriously wish them well; I wish them a lot of luck. If they can do that, I'm ready to syndicate and partner."

NetNoir plans to make money through online advertising targeted specifically toward the people who log onto NetNoir, said Ellington, who stressed that he does not consider the new service a potential competitor, but rather a potential business partner.

"I'm not charging people to come into my area," he said. "I have no plans in the future to charge people."