On the Internet, does anyone know whether you’re black or Latino?
Now that AOL's acquisition of Huffington Post has closed, Arianna Huffington will oversee 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.
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.
Passion play or business deal?
"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.
"What is the motivation? Is it to have a relationship and to be committed to quality and relevancy?" Lozano asked rhetorically in a telephone interview, directing her question at all such ventures.
"I want people to have a relationship with the communities they serve. ... If you're motivated not by serving your customers but by serving the advertisers, you end up making different choices. If it's not core to what you do, it's tangential ... and when you don't get the traffic on the Web," you move on to something else.
In its announcement of the GlobalBlack venture, Huffington intimated this was something more than just a business deal:
"This is a two-way partnership, with HuffPost GlobalBlack content and vision informing all of HuffPost’s coverage, and HuffPost’s editorial and reporting team covering stories shaping the black community."
Huffington isn't just facing the love question. Others view GlobalBlack as a return to segregation.
Separation or integration?
Ruben Navarrette, columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, wrote, "If Huffington wants to bring more nonwhite voices into what is still the predominantly white world of online journalism, more power to her. But instead of relegating African Americans and Latinos to the back of the bus in the form of special sections, what she should do instead is publish more African-Americans and Latinos on the main website where all the traffic goes."
In 2005, such sentiments were enough to scare the New York Times Co. away from labeling its weekly in Gainesville, Fla., the Gainesville Guardian, a "black newspaper." Clint C. Wilson, a Howard University journalism professor, called it instead a "white newspaper in blackface," and the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the chief organization of black-press publishers, denounced the idea. The Times retreated to calling the Guardian a community newspaper and fired the managing editor who had labeled it otherwise.
Still, the trend of mainstream ownership of ethnic publications continued.
Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. created TheRoot.com in 2008. NBC Universal launched TheGrio.com, a site focused on news and video appealing to African Americans, in 2009. Fox News launched FoxNewsLatino.com last fall, and hired Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, formerly corporate executive editor of impreMedia, as its senior editor.
These sites employ writers and editors of color. But the idea that Arianna Huffington would have ultimate control of AOL Latino and AOL Black Voices gave many pause.
How important is minority ownership and management?
In a message in the "Comments" section of my Maynard Institute column "Journal-isms," Sidmel Estes, a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote, "Why is it that something about this sale and the 'overseeing' of material by Ariana Huffington [does] not sit right with me? Another mega-deal where people of color are not the key decision makers." Estes is CEO of BreakThrough Inc., a Atlanta-based media services and production company.
Two former leaders of the Black Voices site echo Estes' concern about management staffing.
"It is unfair to suggest that black- and Latino-themed websites should be owned only by people of color, although that certainly should be the preference," Barry Cooper said via e-mail.
"However, there are other important considerations, namely the makeup of the management team, the number of people of color employed by the entity, and their ability to use their influence and power to serve their communities."
He went on to provide a little background:
"I founded the original BlackVoices.com in 1998 and it remained wholly owned by Tribune Co. after a $5 million investment by Tribune. (It was sold to AOL in 2004 and became AOL Black Voices).
"At our peak we had upwards of 45 full-time employees with offices in L.A., Chicago and New York, and more than 90 percent were African-American. Many were in senior leadership roles with the potential to earn six-figure salaries.
"Today, original Black Voices alumni are in key roles with major firms or are engaged in entrepreneurial pursuits of their own.
"Furthermore, the website was deeply involved in the community, with numerous partnerships with historically black colleges and universities and a commitment to purchase goods and services from minority suppliers and vendors.
"Our experience at Tribune proves that a website does not have to be black or Latino-owned to serve its community. The bigger question is whether white companies will allow black or Latino-themed subsidiaries the autonomy and authority they need to operate independently of the parent company.
"It should also be asked if the major corporations will staff Latino and black websites with senior leaders who view their stewardship as more of a destination than just a pit stop before the next corporate position in the general market.
"Passion is important, because it simply does not work when the black- or Latino-oriented website is owned and operated like another cookie-cutter editorial category clearly created or acquired simply to attract supplemental revenue from advertisers."
Gary Dauphin, another alum, led Black Voices after its 2004 sale to AOL, arriving from Africana.com and BlackPlanet.com.
He said this in an e-mailed message equally as detailed:
"In my experience the importance of black ownership waxes and wanes depending on two things: what a site is trying to achieve, and what kind of non-black people you're working with.
"If the purpose of your site is to deliver a steady stream of lifestyle tips, dating laments or entertainment gossip, the race of the ownership is irrelevant in my estimation. Sure, it helps to have black middle men and women managing the handoff of assets from raceless (i.e., white) conglomerates to black consumers, but that's always been the case in both media and marketing.
"BlackPlanet -- where I got my start on the Web -- was owned for most of its early life by a largely Asian American group, and I would venture that that period was the site's finest hour. The ownership wasn't African American, but it did understand the underlying call to service implied in running an ethnic site, and moreover, they had high ambitions for their company as a Web community platform provider that raised the bar for BP overall.
"...I would personally much rather have a thoughtful, non-black owner who understands new media than a black owner who doesn't get the Web.
"...Quality news and commentary calls for either black ownership or thoughtful white ownership, and the difference between Africana.com and the site that eventually replaced it, AOL BlackVoices, offers another useful example. (I managed Africana and built the first rev of AOLBV.)
"...In that regard, I think the sudden arrival of Arianna Huffington on AOL Black Voices and AOL Latino's horizon is [an] interesting moment in that ethnic site managers might be able to make a case to her for [a] more interesting way of making ethnic media.
"(Of course, that assumes that the people of color running those sites are themselves interested in doing anything more novel.)"
At theRoot.com, Managing Editor Joel Dreyfuss said by telephone that he does have that commitment to quality.
"I've never had anybody say, 'You can't do this.' We're limited by our own imaginations," he said. "We try to provide a range of black perspectives. We're reflecting the mainstream thinking of African Americans."
To Dreyfuss, affiliation with the Washington Post Co. is an asset. It gives the site access to marketing, promotional and advertising support. That's important in order "to rise above the noise." (Full disclosure: "Journal-isms" also appears on theRoot.com.)
"Brands matter," Lozano said. Her ImpreMedia has developed a reputation for serving Hispanic communities, and she said she is in talks with other media companies that "share our core values" to help provide content for ImpreMedia websites.
When brands collide
But what if the "brand" of your parent company has a negative connotation among your target audience? What if you carry, say, the name of Fox News, which is sometimes accused of Latino-bashing?
According to the progressive media watch group Media Matters, you go your own way.
"On the one hand, Fox News Latino is designed to expand Fox's audience to incorporate the rapidly growing Hispanic demographic. On the other hand, Fox News has long had an editorial stance toward Hispanics that could best be described as hostile," Simon Maloy wrote in January.
Maloy reported on coverage of a $25 million wrongful death suit filed by the family of a Mexican teenager who was shot and killed by a border patrol agent in El Paso.
"At Fox News Latino, the news of the lawsuit was handled in a straightforward manner, with a brief report on the filing of the suit and some background for the story with an accompanying stock photo of the U.S./Mexico border.
"On Fox News, the story was treated differently.
"...On Fox News' Happening Now, anchor Jon Scott conducted an interview with the slain teenager's family's attorney. In introducing the combative segment, Scott referred to undocumented immigrants simply as 'illegals' -- a dehumanizing shorthand frequently encountered on the network -- and aired several grainy video clips of rocks being thrown at the U.S./Mexico border."
Not just readers, but perhaps potential writers will be judging
whether a website has their best interests at heart.
Inspiring the next generation
Frank McCoy, a veteran chronicler of black businesses who freelances for theRoot.com and such specialized magazines as Black Engineer & Information Technology, Hispanic Engineer & IT, and Women of Color, says of the publications he writes for, "I always want black ownership, if possible."
"Kids have ... got to know, 'I can do that," he said. They need to know there are both options: "the company owner and the corporate executive. No other group in the world moves ahead unless it controls its own economic destiny."
McCoy recalls the inspiration he received as a youngster seeing a magazine photograph of an African-American banker on London's Parliament Bridge. McCoy's father said that when he was growing up, the only black workers in banks that he had seen were janitors.
McCoy went on to become a desk officer for South Asia at Chemical Bank, the Parliament Bridge photo always in the back of his mind. He said he chose to become a banker as a way to gain background he could use in a journalism career.
That's one reason he spent six years as senior and contributing editor at Black Enterprise magazine, founded in 1970 by entrepreneur Earl G. Graves Sr.
"Earl is not any different in other ways," McCoy said by telephone. "But Earl's vision was there. He knew the Frank McCoy who was looking at the picture on Parliament Bridge."