Africana.com Being Sold to AOL-Time Warner
In a candid 1999 interview with editors of Black Issues in Higher Education, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. described himself as “an intellectual entrepreneur.” The term certainly applied then, because in addition to being the architect of the renowned “Dream Team” of Black scholars at Harvard, Gates had already launched ambitious publishing and Internet ventures.
Now, almost two years later, Gates’ foray into the Internet is paying off handsomely in the sale of Africana.com, a Web site based on a Black encyclopedia project originally conceived by the late Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, to the AOL-Time Warner company. The sale was announced earlier this month.
Gates has “been very successful at attracting large corporations to his projects,” says Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University in Washington.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that the negotiations place the purchase price at least $10 million. Gates could make a profit of at least $1 million in the deal — a noteworthy boon for a professor who claimed earlier this year that he didn’t expect to get rich off his Internet efforts.
The sale comes as other high-profile Black-content Web sites have fallen on hard times during the dot.com recession of 2000. BlackFamilies.com, a site backed by Cox Enterprises Inc., recently was closed down. Other sites have laid off workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Gates told reporters that Africana.com would have eventually folded without the sale to a deep-pocketed investor.
Selling Africana.com, whose very existence can be traced to the intellectual pursuits of the legendary DuBois, may prove controversial among Black scholars, who have been quite willing to criticize Gates for what they perceive as his intellectual transgressions. In the past year, a number of Black scholars have taken Gates to task over his performance in hosting a public television documentary series on Africa. He has been accused of slighting and disrespecting the African subject matter and people featured in the series.
Howard University’s Miller says Gates will inevitably attract controversy to the projects he pursues. The sale of Africana.com to wealthy corporate interests will generate a range of perspectives among Black scholars, he asserts.
Miller, who praises Africana.com for its quality content, says the sale can be appreciated for its pragmatism, especially given that Black-content Web sites are having a difficult time. “I think there are two schools of thought,” he says. “With globalization, there’s an advantage in getting the funding and exposure with a larger company. If you have a product and want to take it down a certain road, you have to be able to form those deals. That’s understandable to be gobbled up,” he says.
On the other hand, “there’s the sentiment that [you] have to be independent,” to maintain integrity, Miller adds.
Time Warner officials hope to attract more Black subscribers to America Online after the proposed AOL-Time Warner merger, according to The Wall Street Journal. As a combined company, AOL-Time Warner has interests in an array of Black-oriented Web sites, including NetNoir.com and Volume.com, a site under development by Home Box Office, which is a division of Time Warner.
Miller says he thinks the Web site is good, but it needs an aggressive marketing push if it is to become a more viable Internet resource for people interested in African American history. “[Africana.com] needs a little more promotion,” he says. “It needs to be remarketed.”
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