AOL Acquires BlackVoices.com

BlackVoices.com, one of the country’s largest African- American Web sites, is coming home to America Online as the giant ISP continues to beef up its offerings to specialized audiences.

AOL is acquiring the 883,000-member Web site from Tribune Co. after months of negotiations. The African American site’s first home was on AOL when it was developed in 1995 as part of Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel Online by editor Barry Cooper. It was later spun-off into its own Web site.

Financial term of the deal weren’t disclosed.

“We have been seeking a partnership for BlackVoices for some time,” said Christine Hennessey, a Tribune spokeswoman. “BlackVoices needed scale to grow its business, so joining AOL with its 4.4 million African American members made great sense.”

The acquisition follows AOL’s release of three niche-focused versions of AOL’s 9.0 Optimized software, one for Hispanics, AOL Latino; Red, a service for teens; and KOL, a kids’ version expanding on AOL’s popular Kids Only channel. Officials at the ISP wouldn’t say whether it planned to use BlackVoices as part of a new software version for African Americans, but said the company would consider how the site should be integrated over the next six months.

“We have larger plans for the African American community and the BlackVoices community will definitely be a part of that,” said Tracy Williams, an AOL spokesperson.

Currently, AOL has a Black Focus channel with news and information. Also under the AOL umbrella are Web site Africana.com and content offerings from partner “Black Enterprise” and NiaOnline.

Though AOL is said to have the largest base of African American subscribers of any media outlet in the world, it has been criticized as slow to capitalize on its position.

“They [AOL] have made a number of attempts at serving the African American market and none have taken off,” said Omar Wasow, executive director of BlackPlanet.com, which has close to 11 million registered users and 1.8 million unique visitors per month. He cited the now-defunct NetNoir, a 1995 AOL offering for African Americans, as an example that did not work out.

“Time Warner acquired [major African American women’s magazine] Essence, a much stronger brand. It’s hard to know why they bought a brand name that’s second-tier compared to Essence,” Wasow opined.

Wasow said AOL has not done well at integrating Web sites such as Africana into the AOL community, and said this would be a challenge with BlackVoices.com.

“Black Focus and Africana.com have been very well received by the community,” responded AOL’s Williams. Since Black Focus launched in May 2003 it has seen a 600 percent increase in traffic over AOL’s former individual offerings geared to African Americans, she said. Africana.com had 250,000 unique visitors in January, a 24 percent increase over the prior month.

“We see BlackVoices as having a very strong and engaged community,” Williams said. “It’s a great complement to what we already have and it reinforces our commitment to the African American community.”

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