03 Nov 2011
- Written by Tri-State Defender Newsroom
During a tenure on Wall Street, Johnson discovered and began to pursue his passion for sharing the full breadth of black culture through the words and stories contained in books. Here, he talks about both the challenges and rewards of running AALBC.com
Kam Williams: What interested you in starting AALBC.com?
KW: How long had the website been in existence before you decided to quit your job on Wall Street to work on the site full-time?
TJ: I had been running AALBC.com for about 11 years before I left Wall Street. That was three years ago.
KW: Do you see the recent closing of Borders Bookstores as a sign of the demise of brick-and-mortar operations and hard copy books? How does this development affect your business?
TJ: Those changes are really reflective of more profound and fundamental shifts that are greatly impacting the entire book industry. But I don’t think the closing of Borders or the rise of eBooks is a sign that the days of brick-and-mortar stores, and physical books, are numbered. This may sound counter-intuitive, but the closing of Borders actually hurts my business, in much the same way that the closing of independent black bookstores did.
Sure, on a superficial level, one can say there are less competitors in the marketplace and that will drive more people online to learn about new books and that that helps sites like AALBC.com. However, on a deeper level, Borders was actually a big seller of black books. They helped generate excitement and sales for our books across the nation. The better-run stores established relationships with the community and local businesses. They purchased advertising in our publications. This benefits the entire industry, publishers, authors, readers and even other booksellers. When these groups thrive, so does AALBC.com.
KW: How else has the business changed over the years?
TJ: Kam, keeping AALBC.com a viable business, in an environment where major technological changes are a constant, is my single biggest challenge. I’ve been active on the World Wide Web since it became available to the general public in the early ’90’s. It really is remarkable how much and how quickly things have changed since then….
KW: How are African-American-oriented websites faring nowadays?
TJ: Kam, it is a challenging time for the vast majority of our websites. I think we should make a distinction between different types of African-American-oriented websites. First, there are the large corporate entities like AOL’s Huffington Post/Black Voices whose primary mandate is to maximize shareholder’s wealth. Then there are the mostly independent entities who also have a profit motive, but are driven by a more conscious mission. Sites like AALBC.com, The Network Journal, Black Star News and the other entities who regularly publish your content are part of this mix.
As a result of these two different goals, the content produced by the large corporate entities focuses more on scandal, celebrity, and superficial pop-culture. That content is more popular and easier to produce and is therefore more profitable. The content produced by sites like AALBC.com is less sensational, which makes keeping the associated sites profitable much more challenging. In fact, even Google favors the larger entities, making things even more difficult…
KW: What can people do to support sites like AALBC.com?
TJ: People simply need to visit the website, tell their friends about it, use social media to share the articles, reviews, and author profiles. Folks can participate on our discussion boards, instead of having a conversation on Facebook. As an aside, we should be using Facebook to send people to our sites. I also encourage people to send us feedback, to suggest books for review, and authors to cover. I know I sound like I’m beating up on the Huff Post, but many writers contribute to that site for free. I suggest those writers consider contributing to independent sites like AALBC.com once in awhile. It really is in everyone’s best interest for independent voices to survive. We are not going to survive, over the long term, without the support of the people we try to serve.
KW: What do you think is in the future?
TJ: Of course, If I knew that I’d be a rich man. I fear the trends I see online are escalating offline as well. There are fewer independent, bookstores, magazines, newspapers and radio stations. Journalism is dying, sources for critical book and film reviews of black work are drying up, author advances are shrinking and writers are finding it more difficult to make a living. Content generation across all platforms are coalescing into the hands a few very large multinational corporations that don’t have our interests in mind. At best, the content they spew does not truly represent what we, as black people, feel, care, or think about. At worse, it is destroying us by perpetuating negative stereotypes and images for the sake of making money.
KW: Is it already too late in your estimation, or can something still be done?
TJ: Fortunately, we can absolutely do something about this – we must continuously support independent entities as best we can. With the continued support of my community, there is no reason an AALBC.com should not thrive. Ideally, the Google search result should be an unimportant detail. Indeed, maybe we should create our own Google.