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Local publishers struggle to reach black readers

Two Tampa Bay area men hope their magazines can bring a minority voice to the media.

Using $12,000 in savings, Rigo Garcia has started a magazine aimed at middle-class African-Americans in the Tampa Bay area, a group that "gets lost in the shuffle" of media coverage, he says.

The Tampa man recently produced the second issue of The Avenue, sending out 9,000 free copies for distribution at bookstores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. His goal: build reader interest and advertising support so he can start charging for the magazine.

It won't be easy. Several magazines have tried to tap into the local minority audience with limited success. Convincing advertisers to buy ads in yet another publication is tough, and Garcia has hefty costs. He has to pay freelance writers to write articles and then pay for production and delivery.

That's why he still has his day job as assistant director of player development for the New York Yankees. Garcia, who has worked for the Yankees for 10 years, oversees a multimillion-dollar budget for the team's minor leagues and Latin American operations.

"I'm hoping the magazine can help motivate people," Garcia, 35, said. "In Tampa Bay, we have a very robust economy, but not all the black businesses are part of that picture. The media can help influence thinking on that, and I want to help business owners by telling them how they can improve their knowledge."

The magazine isn't strictly about business, though _ "I don't want something like Forbes magazine," Garcia said. In addition to stories about business loans and St. Petersburg's business development center, the current issue includes items about the Internet and the civil rights movement.

Garcia started the magazine last year with $12,000 of his own money; by now, he estimates he has sunk $20,000 into it. There's also a huge investment of time _ between his two jobs, he often works 18-hour days.

The fledgling magazine publisher says he has learned a lot about business from his Yankees boss, team owner George Steinbrenner. "What's inspiring about watching him is how involved he is in everything," Garcia said, "from noticing a piece of paper flying around in the parking lot to checking on who's answering the phone in our office."

Such attention to detail is critical in starting a magazine. Beyond finding ways to make money, a publication must build editorial credibility. That's where one of Garcia's competitors hopes to make his mark.

"I feel that journalistically, my publication is going to stand out," said Paul Jerome, who is publishing the second issue of FlaVour. Unlike The Avenue, which is distributed locally, FlaVour is aimed at an affluent statewide minority audience.

Jerome, 47, who also works part time at the St. Petersburg Times as a copy editor, is sending 20,000 copies to higher-income minority households across the state. Again, the idea is for advertising to pay the bills; Jerome hopes to reach the break-even point financially by the end of the year.

He estimates that he has put $20,000 of his own money into the magazine so far, while other investors have contributed $25,000. Jerome does most of the writing for the Clearwater-based magazine, but pays a fulfillment company to handle the mailings.

"The audience we are targeting is one that just hasn't attracted anyone's specific attention in Florida," Jerome said.

The challenge for both Garcia and Jerome is simple yet daunting. They must convince advertisers that this is a lucrative market to reach, and then sell them an ad. But for both publishers, the goal is beyond making money.

"I want my magazine to tell stories of blacks achieving things in Florida," Jerome said. "Such stories, I hope, can inspire our readers."