The Root has published a series of quotes regarding the purchase of The Huffington Post by AOL, and how that will affect the AOL sites targeted to communities of color like Black Voices. This excerpt from the popular media blog Richard Prince's Journal-isms raises some interesting questions:
"Now that AOL's acquisition of Huffington Post has closed, Arianna Huffington will take control of AOL Latino, AOL Black Voices and other AOL sites as part of the $315 million deal that puts the Huffington Post under the AOL umbrella," Richard Prince wrote Monday for the Poynter Institute.
"Between now and July, HuffPost GlobalBlack, a new black-oriented Huffington Post project, expects to hire about eight staffers as it brings to life a brainstorm from Huffington and Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.
"As Peter Steiner's New Yorker cartoon famously pointed out, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. But do people know whether you're black or Latino? Or at least that you have those groups' best interests at heart?
"Whether these ventures can show the love could be key to their success.
"'The last decade is full of failed websites targeting Latinos,' notes Monica C. Lozano, chief executive officer of ImpreMedia, which calls itself the nation's leading Hispanic news and information company. Its network includes nine print publications and 11 online properties, claiming a monthly reach of 7.7 million adults and monthly distribution of nearly 7 million. It is not Hispanic-owned.
Read the rest on TheRoot.com.
As someone who helped launch BlackPlanet.com, who now works at Black Voices, this is the second time I have worked for an African American web property that is not "black-owned." While black media ownership is important, much like the Latino company mentioned above, what is just as important to consider is the commitment of the employees of a media company to eagerly serve its target demographic. For AOL properties, this is definitely the case. Experiences from my work history further underscore the value of this commitment above all else.
When I helped launch BlackPlanet.com, I was hired by a team of five young Asian people and one young man who is half-Latino. Coming from Brown University (and just being me) I was reared in an academic context that prized diversity and sought to convey to pupils the value of the contributions of all members of American society to our great nation's achievements. I was happy to finally be working on a team that fulfilled my idealistic professional vision.
Many people at the time compared the launch of BlackPlanet.com under a mostly-Asian management team to the stereotyped situation of "the Koreans who own the corner store in a black neighborhood." That kind of horrible statement makes you wonder: what group might also have some race issues? But after BlackPlanet.com was launched, and it became the darling of the African American online world, most ignorant quips like that ceased to be uttered. Black people online experienced a well-engineered, fun and culturally-specific place on the web made just for them, and in the end that is all that mattered. It has since been bought by Radio One, which is owned by a group of investors including Radio One founder Cathy Hughes, an African American.
Of course, part of what made the launch of BlackPlanet.com successful (which is identical to the situation at Black Voices) was the all-black management team. At BlackPlanet.com, we had a black executive director, prominent black technologist Omar Wasow, a black marketing manager, an African American lead designer, and a black editor/producer -- me. It was actually a joy to have our perspectives as African Americans enriched by the non-black members of our team as we ran the site. We even had one white engineer, who was very comfortable being in the "minority." And more than once I offered cultural angles on AsianAvenue.com content pieces, which was our sister site, that improved the work of their editor. Thus, as I learned at Brown, our cultural diversity was actually an asset and not a curse. It certainly didn't "water down" BlackPlanet.com, and black ownership would not necessarily have helped.
The issue of ownership in itself is quite complex in the world of big business. It's not just a matter of whose faces are found in the corner offices (although lack of diversity there is a failure of many companies that blacks spend most of their money enriching). Companies on the level of BlackPlanet.com when it was launched and AOL today are not owned by any one person or group. They are owned by investors and stockholders -- period. As consumers, you also cast an important vote with your dollar, but that's about it as far as the division of power goes. While the barrier to investing in companies and buying stock is somewhat high, it is not insurmountable. If more African Americans want a say in how the companies we buy from function, we can also become "owners" by buying up stock as a group, exert power by boycotting companies that don't adequately serve us, and pool our resources to invest in companies that do perform in ways that suit our needs.
The mostly-Asian founders of Community Connect, the former parent company of BlackPlanet.com, did just that. After working day jobs while doing hard work at night until they found funding, and then enduring ten years of grueling work as entrepreneurs, they finally sold their company to a black-controlled media giant. Community Connect was launched with a small loan from the CEO's brother that could easily be raised in one Sunday at a megachurch special offering. I am not saying this to chastise the black community -- but the money is there. I think we can have more black-owned Web sites, and I don't knock the black-run Internet entities that are a success like Bossip and Media Takeout. But when you look at the type of content produced by some of the top black sites (I'm looking at you World Star Hip-Hop) -- it almost makes you consider black ownership a bad thing.
Are we sometimes the first in line to sell our people out?
When you look at the legacy of BET, a company that was completely black-owned and run, you can see that black ownership is not a holy grail. No other media enterprise is more maligned for its cultural products, and it was created by us for us. So while African American ownership may be preferred, it might not guarantee quality or depth of media content, or respect for every black audience member.
At both BlackPlanet.com and BlackVoices.com I have been free as a content editor and technology producer to work from a basis of having that respect. Here at BlackVoices.com, I create products that serve the African American audience that I love. I have been grateful to have access to the resources to do this work for a group that has been underserved --even harmed -- through media outlets like BET. Does it matter that the resources to be of service come from "non-black" entities? No. All that matters is the intention of these entities to make great products.
I believe that AOL will continue to be a company dedicated to serving communities of color the very best, as the Black Voices team has with complete editorial authority in my four years at the company. Black-controlled, in some instances, is better than 100% black-owned.