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Web site finds success with focus on African-Americans

Fueled by a belief that white people aren't the only ones driving the Internet boom, emerging black Internet guru Barry Cooper founded Black Voices, an online service directed at African-Americans.

Started in 1995, the Afro-centric site offers a variety of features of interest to blacks, including 25 chat rooms; general news and daily stories on sports and politics; and how to sign up for social events, such as the annual Black Voices Caribbean Cruise.

"This is the site where dad can go online and find other African-American men who play golf and may be passing through town," said Cooper, who manages Black Voices for its parent, Tribune Co.

Why market only to blacks?

"The African-American community is a niche audience," Cooper said. "Some of the largest services have ignored that fact, and that's to our benefit."

Scant competition for the attention of black Web surfers may explain why Black Voices grossed $1.2-million in its first year, while most young Internet companies struggle to bring in revenues through advertising and usage fees.

Other news outlets, including Black Entertainment Television and Black Enterprise magazine, also anticipated a rush to the Net by blacks and formed online presences.

"The great majority of our readers are knowledgeable about the Internet and computer technology. If they are not already online, the majority of them are planning to be on the Internet within the next six months," said Tariq Muhammad, technology editor for Black Enterprise magazine. "We wanted to be a part of that."

The companies that have chosen to target black surfers couldn't have had better timing.

The Commerce Department said black spending on computer hardware and software doubled every year from 1993 to 1995 and totaled $741-million in 1996.

As more African-Americans buy PCs, services like Black Voices may get a boost. "We think it's going to happen for Afro-centric sites next year," Cooper said.

Its top competitors are MSBET, a joint venture between BET and Microsoft Corp., and a San Francisco-based service called NetNoir.