‘Black Press 3.0’: The digital transformation of The Atlanta Voice


How a second-generation publication is evolving into a multimedia production studio during a pandemic and social unrest

In this case study, we explore how The Atlanta Voice is building on the momentum from the LMA’s Digital Transformation Lab, the first standalone project from Accelerate Local and designed to build strong, sustainable, and profitable digital futures for six publishers of color. Other participants include The Dallas Weekly, New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender, and The Washington Informer. Through the lab, The Atlanta Voice has diversified distribution, captured impactful journalism in video and beyond, capitalized on the desire from sponsors and advertisers to reach a captivated niche audience, and much more. 

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

The Atlanta Voice, a historically Black-owned nonprofit newspaper established in 1966, hits newsstands each Friday after sending it to press the day before. From the start, the company’s motto has remained consistent: “A people without a voice cannot be heard.”

Based just south of downtown Atlanta, The Atlanta Voice building was purchased in the early 1970s by co-founder J. Lowell Ware.

“He was a really smart business person. Rather than pay rent, he knew he wanted to own his own building,” said Janis Ware, his daughter and current publisher of The Atlanta Voice. “At this point, the values have gone up dramatically.”

As part of a multimedia evolution, in part through Local Media Association’s Digital Transformation Lab, the publication is expanding revenue streams and, in the process, may expand its audience base beyond Atlanta.

“When we started the Digital Transformation Lab for publishers of color back in November, we set ambitious goals for digital revenue and audience growth,” said Nancy Lane, CEO, Local Media Association. “Watching The Atlanta Voice, and others in the lab, transform so quickly to a digital future has been one of the truly bright spots in 2020. Janis, Jim, Marshall and team have worked so hard and the payoff is going to be huge. We’re especially proud of their video and newsletter efforts. This is a media company to watch.”

Leadership at The Atlanta Voice

Janis Ware, publisher and owner

Ware is a second-generation owner of The Atlanta Voice who took over the operation in 1991. She also oversees SUMMECH, a community housing development corporation, as its executive director.

James A. Washington, president and general manager

Washington became the owner and publisher of Dallas Weekly in 1985, and stayed until 2018 before handing off operations to his son so he could relocate to Atlanta. He has been married to Ware since 2003.

Marshall A. Latimore, editor in chief and chief content officer

Prior to the Voice, Latimore served as publisher and editor in chief of a millennial-focused lifestyle magazine in Nashville called STAYONTHEGO, from 2015-17. Latimore also spent five years doing part-time work with the Houston Defender, another Black-owned publication, in addition to his prior experience leading page design efforts for Advance Media and Gatehouse Media.

Coverage Area / Distribution

Approximately 40,000 copies of the weekly print publication are distributed across the Atlanta metropolitan area to more than 600 locations. Digitally, the site sees an average of 149,000 unique visitors and more than 200,000 page views per month. The Atlanta Voice also produces various specialty magazines distributed to niche audiences. Additionally, the website provides daily access to audiences in the Greater Atlanta area and beyond.

History

Ownership

Ed Clayton and J. Lowell Ware established The Atlanta Voice in 1966 out of the basement of Ware’s home. According to his daughter, Ware previously started The Atlanta Inquirer, another Black newspaper in the city that reportedly started back in 1960.

Current publisher Janis Ware jokes she “was in diapers” when the paper started, but it was only 11 years into the paper’s existence that she started working for her family’s publication upon receiving her undergraduate degree from The University of Georgia business school in 1977.

“I graduated on a Friday, and I started working for my father that Monday,” Ware said. “I had every full intent of staying there for 3 years.”

Ware became The Atlanta Voice’s second-generation owner in 1991 when her father, J. Lowell Ware, died. She was 35 at the time.

Role Of The Black Press

The Atlanta Voice was a “paper that started out of the Civil Rights movement,” Ware said, referring to iconic leaders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Juanita Abernathy — wife of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy — as common visitors to The Atlanta Voice, which was the only local paper at the time to prominently feature King and other civil rights leaders.

“Were it not for The Atlanta Voice printing that information, it would not have gotten out the way that it did,” Ware said.

Other Atlanta newspapers at the time didn’t publish these prominent newsmakers, The Voice became a source for other outlets to borrow from — both the news and eventually Black reporters.

As more Black reporters were poached to go work at other publications, Ware said that caused Black-owned publications to lose prominence.

“They recognized good talent because they were watching it all of the time,” she said.

As established Black papers regain prominence locally, Ware said The Voice’s role is just as vital as when her father helped launch the publication.

“It’s probably needed as much today as it was before because we haven’t had a lot of significant changes,” Ware said. “All of the conditions that were prevalent then, they still exist today.”

Company Initiatives

Past Innovations

Her father was always ahead of the curve, building his own printing plant that was hailed as the first and only Black-owned press in the southeastern United States until it ceased operations in 2003. Ware attributed the need for The Voice to have its own printing press to majority white-owned companies in Atlanta that refused to print certain articles on the front page.

“That disturbed my father to no extent because he did not want his voice silenced, so he purchased his own printing press,” Ware said.

The Voice transformed again as early adopters of Tandy Radio Shack computers, according to Ware, who credits her father for incorporating new technology into the operation.

J. Lowell Ware in 1989 also established the SUMMECH Community Land Trust, a housing development corporation that has since developed over 1,400 units. It’s one of five entities that he passed down to his daughter upon his death.

Shortly after Latimore joined as editor in chief in 2017, one of his first major initiatives involved a redesign of the print publication, website and even The Atlanta Voice logo after years of consistent design.

As it turns out, he may not have had Ware’s permission to take on such a major endeavor. The publisher returned from an extended vacation to learn about the changes.

“I thought I had gotten her approval before she left, but apparently I hadn’t,” Latimore said. “So while she might’ve been initially mortified, she had gotten some great feedback from some of our advertisers about the product. And then she got a stamp of approval from her mom, so that was a huge relief.”

The experience reminds Ware of the benefit that fresh talent can bring to an organization, exactly why she hired Latimore.

“Sometimes you do have to bring in younger people and let their ideas be heard and seen because otherwise, we can become too stuck in our ways,” Ware said. “I’m grateful [for Latimore], but I absolutely did not give permission.”

Ware brought that same fresh perspective to her father’s operation after college, customizing the company’s financials to better identify what revenue streams are most profitable. She also had a habit of bringing alternative proposals to the table.

“He would often say, ‘That’s not what I asked for,’ so I learned soon after to give him what he asked for exactly the way he wanted it, but then I would give him something else and say, “Review this at the same time so you can see what it could be.’”

It’s all part of an effort to better relate to a new wave of readership that demands news in 280 characters or less.

“I cringe because I don’t think you can get the full depth of a story in that amount of space,” Ware admits. “But I think we do have to adjust with the times — it’s just a matter of how that evolution is going to take place.”

Latest Initiatives

The latest effort by The Atlanta Voice to modernize marks what Washington describes as an effort to become a multimedia content producer.

“We’re diversifying our distribution with the intent of becoming more sustainable across the board,” he said. “I look at what we’re doing as a manufacturing plant. We want information — whatever that information is, text, videos, photographs — that we can manufacture and send out for distribution.”

That supply chain influence comes down to packaging, Latimore said, and how to get the right content to readers in the package they prefer. That effort has required more staff, as well as new digital equipment, to help realize the new focus. Positions have been created to focus on social media and reader engagement as well a new development director role to help find money to sustain the project.

Latimore back in November also split the traditional managing editor role into two positions:

  • managing editor of publishing, and
  • managing editor of digital.

While the two roles have some overlap, the publishing side focuses primarily on the print newspaper, magazines, various special editions and the internship program. The digital managing editor then has time to help grow new digital products and dedicated digital content. The two also work together to make sure content translates across different platforms regardless of where it originated.

By having more dedication to the digital side of the business, Washington said it has changed the overall dynamic at The Voice. Previously, business and editorial efforts were focused entirely around the weekly print production schedule. That meant missing stories that came after the press deadline and covering news that was dated by the time it published.

“Now with technology, we’re just as nimble as anyone else,” Washington said. “Our presence is now being demanded by readers because they want our coverage, and it’s fueling our growth because people are coming back to talk to us about a number of things.”

Most notably, The Voice recently hosted Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for an extensive interview about the pandemic — including her own COVID-19 positive diagnosis as well as most of her family — and social unrest impacting the community as well as whether rumors of her vice president candidacy keep her from being an effective leader locally.

“We had her undivided attention for 20 minutes, which is huge here,” Latimore said.

Ware marks this period as the company’s third transformation in its history, or as Latimore describes it: “We’re trying to become the ‘Black Press 3.0.’”

But it might carry the most financial risk of the three initiatives, Ware said.

“We are making this transition but don’t really know how to monetize it yet,” she said. “But neither do most majority publications, either.”

Fortunately, Ware said she can fall back on her business management degree to manage The Atlanta Voice’s multimedia investments wisely. In fact, some equipment is covered from grant money, she said.

“I really do look at all 10 pennies and a dime to make sure we’re doing it the right way,” Ware said.

Washington also expressed confidence in succeeding financially, comparing The Voice’s goals to that of a destination restaurant that attracts interest from within the market and beyond.

“We want to be a destination for getting information,” Washington said. “If we can get there, then we would have won the culture war.”

That means creating content for a wider audience than ever and comparing the publication to every other news outlet — not just Black-owned newspapers.

“You can manage yourself into second-class citizenship. Just do inferior work,” Washington said.

Latimore and his editorial team have done comprehensive coverage of ongoing protests as well as special coverage of COVID-19’s local impact.

That health-focused reporting has been featured in various video interviews that have been blasted across various Voice platforms, including recent newsletters. As part of a marketing campaign to expand audience reach and garner new subscribers and signups, those newsletters were also sent leveraging Site Impact’s database of millions of new households without existing relationships with The Voice. The work was enabled by a $5,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, capitalizing on success shared by fellow Digital Transformation Lab cohort publisher The New York Amsterdam News, which was able to substantially increase its subscriptions and newsletter signups.

Fortunately for The Voice, Ware said it benefits from being a smaller and more nimble operation than its larger daily competition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example.

“When you’re smaller then you’re able to manage expenses a little easier,” she said.

And they have Latimore to lead the rebranding efforts.

“We’re doing some things that I thought were very necessary in terms of re-introducing the Black press to the marketplace,” he said.

That includes more than redoing the print design or company logo. Latimore is in the process of updating The Voice’s CMS for the second time in three years in an attempt to enable any of the editors to execute digital production rather than hire a dedicated digital staffer.

“Now I have an entire team that is training on how to post so I don’t have to rely so heavily on a single online editor,” Latimore said.

That makes The Atlanta Voice more agile, especially during breaking news scenarios. For example, it was almost midnight on a Friday when Latimore and his editorial staff learned that longtime local congressional Rep. John Lewis died months after a cancer diagnosis.

“This increases our ability to be up to date no matter what happens,” he said.

Through the Digital Transformation Lab, The Voice’s participation in external programs has also helped provide guidance on their digital evolution. The Voice was one of 30 publishers out of more than 120 to receive a grant from The Knight Foundation to adopt Newspack. A Google News Initiative consultant is assisting Latimore with the CMS transition, leveraging existing relationships with leading WordPress plugin developers to help The Atlanta Voice better customize its web pages, especially for special projects.

“Of the many great choices for news site management systems nowadays, we favored Newspack for the lab participants for three primary reasons,” said Jay Small, chief operating officer of LMA. “First, it builds on the well-known, well-supported, easy-to-train WordPress infrastructure. Second, it adds and combines functionality atop WordPress to support news processes and media business growth. Last but not least, it is cost-effective, and the Newspack team has been very helpful and willing to minimize costs and implementation headaches.”

The team also participated in the Facebook Video Accelerator program, one of very few newspapers — especially among Black-owned publications — to participate. Most enrollees came from digital television newsrooms where they felt detached from the original operation. Washington said the experience helped The Voice realize what pitfalls to avoid when incorporating multimedia production into the standard newsprint operation.

“We aren’t having the same problems because we have a blank sheet of paper, so to speak, so we felt like we’re actually ahead of the game,” Washington said.

Ware said such outside help is essential, but there is still work to do to prove this digital effort can be monetized successfully.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing you have to admit you don’t know,” she said. “It’s important to have someone who could tell you what to do and why.”

Nonetheless, The Voice leaders are pressing forward on plans to retrofit the former printing press warehouse bottom floor into a 3,000-square-foot digital production studio where new multimedia content will be created.

“It’s our own digital fun factory,” Latimore said, listing podcasts, small concerts, TED talks, talk shows and documentaries as potential future content that can be done inside the new space. They have even considered renting out the space to other small community businesses and organizations once it’s completed.

Other initiatives include live streams with reporters, particularly sports reporters who are limited on coverage opportunities during quarantine, so audiences can engage with staff directly. The ideas are still in its early stages and are yet to gain enough traction to be monetized.

“I tell Marshall, ‘Don’t tell me how the marketplace needs it,’” Washington said. “I’m just interested in how I can sell it.”

Conclusion

Overall Takeaways

Latimore said content such as the Mayor Bottoms interview represents a strong example of how The Voice can gain credibility as a news organization regardless of its place in the market.

“I want us to be recognized for creating excellence,” Latimore said. “Our stories should be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than what you will see in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York Times or any other publication for that matter. I just want us to be taken seriously in the marketplace because I know if we produce excellence the rest of the opportunities will come.”

It’s important to reach the people who are not reading the paper historically, Ware said, because they gain perspectives they won’t find in other publications.

“It’s very different for someone else to tell our story, so the Black press has always needed to be there,” she said.

The digital transformation also presents The Atlanta Voice with a recruitment opportunity, Ware said.

“I’m excited about the transformation because it allows us to play in a space that people really want to work in,” Ware said. “We can really now compete on an entirely different level.”

Future Plans

Despite most publications suffering during coronavirus, Ware said advertising sales have maintained momentum year-over-year. The Voice is on pace in 2020 to do as well if not better than last year, she said. The vast majority of the company’s revenue still comes from the primary print publication.

Grants and strict financial policies have helped keep The Atlanta Voice largely free of debt, Ware said, so the business isn’t overextended.

“If you do something, you have to decide how to pay for it without lingering debt,” she said. “That requires really being modest in a lot of things.”

The longstanding building, for example, has not changed drastically since it was purchased 50 years ago — making the transformation of the printing press facility into a digital video production studio all the more significant.

The innovations continue for The Atlanta Voice. Ware said she is working on the company’s next magazine, a healthcare-focused project that is close to her heart.

“When I listen to these stories about COVID, African Americans are suffering disproportionately more, but there’s no magazine speaking to that segment of society,” she said.

The new publication will be called Health Plus, Ware said, and it’s expected to debut in October during breast cancer awareness month.

If it’s successful, Health Plus could someday expand beyond Atlanta, she said.

Washington said he is also focused on branded and sponsored content as another future revenue stream after multimedia content efforts ramp up.

“Let’s see if we can produce quality work by building a solid infrastructure first,” he said.

What’s Next for The Atlanta Voice

The Atlanta Voice is one of ten founding publishers of the Fund for Black Journalism. The first project, focused on K-12 education and the impact of COVID, launches in August. The ten publishers will produce local stories with a special emphasis on disparities that Black students and parents face as they return to school, whether in-person or online. A national journalist will then roll the ten stories up into a national story for distribution in other media outlets. Go here to support the Fund for Black Journalism.

About the author

Joe Lanane is a lifelong community journalist with more than 15 years of industry experience. Most notably, he spent 8 years at Community Impact Newspaper, working his way up the editorial ladder from market-level editor to regional managing editor. From 2017-20, he led the company’s editorial operations as executive editor, helping to launch Community Impact’s first editions outside of Texas in the Phoenix, Nashville and Atlanta metros — joining existing operations already running in Austin, Houston and Dallas. He also helped drive CI’s digital expansion, tripling the online audience during his time as head of the editorial department.

Community journalism remains a core focus for Lanane as a freelancer for Local Media Association and other outlets. He enjoys sharing success stories from operations that have found a way to effectively inform audiences while maintaining a successful business model.

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