Al Jazeera America struggles to get off the margins

A quality-first strategy faces huge hurdles

When Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based cable news giant rolled out its massive new American affiliate one year ago, creating a full-force 24-hour cable news channel—800 journalists, several studios, support staff, the works— in a move that drew cheers, skepticism, but mostly puzzlement: why?

Another cable news channel? Aren’t there too many already?

Al Jazeera America’s CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, an Al Jazeera veteran, has a ready answer. The network would distinguish itself through one thing: its reporting. Let Fox, MSNBC and other wannabes have their opinions. Al Jazeera America would stick to the journalism, the real stuff.

“We have more live news; we are long format; we have a heavy investigative arm,” he said in an interview. “We have more news gathering in under-reported areas… It is one of our competitive advantages, the opportunity that exists. It’s not about having an agenda. It’s not about infotainment. It’s about raising the bar for the quality of journalism.”

The sentiment, heartfelt, and forcefully expressed, is the network’s reason for being, the foundation of its business plan, and the heart of its marketing campaign: “More reporting,” says a typical promo. “More bureaus. More stories. Real reporting from around the world. This is what we do.”

It’s hard to argue with the sentiment. Despite a polarized, often toxic cable landscape drenched in opinion, you’d like to think there is room for boots-on-the-ground, fact-based news gathering—original reporting, what used to be called, “the news.” For a journalist, it’s like arguing against apple pie.

But if there is indeed a market void, Al Jazeera America, or AJAM as it’s known internally, has made little headway in filling it. Its ratings have been tiny to the point of immaterial;—17,000 viewers in primetime this year, jumping to 23,000 during the early days of the Gaza war, compared to an average of 453,000 for CNN and 1.87 million for Fox News. (The figures require a few caveats, which we’ll get to.)

The network laid off more than 60 people in April, puncturing morale and creating a climate of uncertainty, according to current and former staffers. Recently, rumors swirled around the prospect of another round of layoffs, which Al Shihabi says he addressed in a recent staff-wide conference call/meeting, saying layoffs, if any, would amount to no more than 20 people.

Current and former staffers say they find the organization’s commitment to old-school, high-quality journalism inspiring, but that they’re frustrated by the ratings, the absence of a clear digital strategy and the disconnect between the TV product and the Web operation. Right now the two are separate operations—an anomaly among news organizations, which have been strenuously integrating digital with other platforms for years.

“They’re focused on substances,” says a former news employee. “They are committed to covering issues that matter. I was proud to work there. “But, this person says, the operation was designed for a pre-digital era, is not especially innovative, and hasn’t managed to adapt to new ways of getting the word out. “You can’t just say, ‘if we build it they will come….’”

Adding to the murkiness is the fact that the ultimate financial authority for the operation is a faceless group in Doha, the Budget Committee charged with allocating resources at Al Jazeera America’s parent, Al Jazeera Media Network. The whole sprawling organization is underwritten by the government of Qatar.

Even granted that the network is still young—CNN didn’t break through until the first Gulf War, a decade after its launch—a key question is whether AJAM’s visibility problems can be traced to the handicaps the network faces in getting distributed across the country, which are formidable, or whether the journalism itself plays a part.

Al Shihabi insists the problem is the former, and even those critical of the network agree.

“Al Jazeera doesn’t have a content problem,” says the former employee. “It has a distribution problem.”

David Marash, a former producer correspondent for ABC’s Nightline and anchor for Al Jazeera English, an AJAM predecessor, says that while the new network doesn’t have what he saw as the intellectual ambition of Al Jazeera English, it has handily outperformed its cable news competitors from a journalistic standpoint, particularly in the category of longform and magazine-length documentaries.

“I do think it’s distinguishable from CNN and the totally faux news channels Fox and MSNBC,” says Marash, now the host of a forthcoming interview show on KSFR, a community station in Santa Fe, NM, and the news director there. “There’s an absence of gossip journalism. There’s a higher percentage of news coverage. They do more half-hour documentaries in a month than all their competitors do in a year. The quality of the longform is outstanding, and they’ve got the awards to show for it.”

A couple of days’ spent watching the channel last week bears this out, to some degree, but also highlights some of what might hold them back. The daytime schedule offers what appears to be a fairly standard lineup of news and talk shows, with US-produced shows anchored by US network and cable news veterans Tony Harris, John Seigenthaler, and Joie Chen. It takes a while to realize this is an American production, especially given that shows are sandwiched between Al Jazeera’s main English-language, international show, broadcast from Doha several times a day. The talk shows offer sober fare and steer clear of opinionated rants—Ray Suarez’s Inside Story hosted a discussion on teacher tenure in California; Antonio Mora’s Consider This had experts talking about Gaza, Ukraine, and the like. The Stream, a social-media driven show, tiptoed toward edgy with a segment on homophobia in the NFL, but the discussion, featuring Chris Kluwe, the former punter who just settled a discrimination suit against the Vikings, was substantive and interesting. This week, as if to make up for it, The Stream is taking on poultry inspection.

Still, producing “serious” programming is harder to pull off than rants, and even the best shows didn’t differ too much from something one would see on the PBS News Hour. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s nothing especially original either. And while screaming TV fights are obnoxious, three people sitting around agreeing with each other about climate change;—as they did on the Inside Story talk show on Thursday—is emphatically bland.

The qualitative difference is more apparent in primetime, most obviously with Fault Lines, an investigative half-hour that, when I watched, showed a compelling segment on the bail bonds industry. While the piece broke little new ground, it was riveting TV and was a welcome addition to coverage of the troubled criminal-justice system, which is usually ignored.

The fact that AJAM fields a full-time investigative unit helped the network distinguish itself last week—Fault Lines had already aired a piece about the militarization of local police departments when the Ferguson story exploded from Missouri. Reporter Sebastian Walker’s segment, which focused on a bloody SWAT-type raid gone wrong in LA County, was well done and all-too-relevant.

Ferguson dominated the news the day I watched the most, Thursday (the day Obama spoke about it and the state police were brought in), but even here AJAM’s effort was notable. Its crew was in the thick of things to the point that Ash-har Quraishi, a Chicago-based reporter (the network boasts a dozen US bureaus), and his colleagues were teargassed. Joie Chen flew in from Washington to anchor the network’s flagship program, America Tonight, from Ferguson. But what was most notable was that the network stayed with the story, hour after hour, with standups well past 11pm, while competitors returned to regularly scheduled programming. That said, there was little new to report each hour.

Current and former employees say resources are stretched thin and the latest layoffs didn’t help. One senses that the goal of maintaining a qualitative edge—one that is readily visible to a casual viewer—requires even more resources than are currently available. It’s expensive.

But the biggest threats to the station’s viability are clearly on the business side, with the distribution issues a particular sore point. Al Jazeera Media Network’s decision to enter the US cable market, via the $500 million deal for Al Gore’s Current TV network, saddled AJAM with severe limitations: the network is still only available in about 60 percent of American homes (competitors like CNN are in virtually all of them), often only in premium packages and at unadvantageous positions on the dial (e.g., channels 114 and 614 in Princeton, NJ). Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Al Jazeera Effect, says he can’t watch AJAM because Charter Communications, his local cable operator in Pasadena, doesn’t offer it.

Indeed, the Current deal continued to haunt the network last week when Gore himself sued AJAM’s parent for allegedly withholding “tens of millions of dollars” held in escrow.

The network is not widely available in high definition, giving the programming a murky, unpolished veneer compared to competitors (an AJAM spokeswoman says that’s not unusual with cable launches and the problem is being fixed). And just as crucially, its deals with cable operators include onerous restrictions on the amount of free video it can offer online, making impossible the kind of livestreaming that allowed its predecessor, Al Jazeera English, to establish a beachhead in the US, particularly among younger viewers. The AJE live stream is no longer available in the US.

The restrictions also make it difficult to imitate the buzz-creating digitally centered distribution strategy deployed by Vice News, whose parent received an investment from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox that valued the company at $1.4 billion. Al Jazeera Media Network’s effort to reach younger, digitally minded viewers, AJ+, has yet to catch on.

Al Shihabi, 43, a native of Amman, Jordan, who studied at Georgetown, is candid in discussing the challenges the network faces but adamant that they can be overcome. He acknowledges that the website and TV operations have operated as “silos,” with the digital side providing little marketing oomph for the network. “We are working on this one,” he says. He’s out making the case to cable operators to ease restrictions on video streaming online and to expand into markets where AJAM is not available.

The goal is for the network ultimately to be self-sustaining. And while he doesn’t say how it would happen, he did suggest a timeframe. “I need four years, five years” to build brand awareness to rival that of competitors that have been around—and marketing themselves—for decades (Fox and MSNBC were both launched in 1996; CNN in 1980).

He argues that ratings are misleading given that AJAM is shut out of a large percentage of homes and because the station is so new. Even still, he says there’s progress in this area: AJAM had more than 1.4 million prime viewers over two weeks (100,000 per night) during the Gaza conflict.

Al Shihabi says that while ratings and financial concerns are important, success will also be measured through other metrics, including impact on the public discourse as reflected in social media and elsewhere, and, most crucially, the quality of the journalism.

“We are not about chasing the audience and missing our core values,” he says. “We will stick with our core values. We will stick with the quality. I’m not going to change our core values to chase an audience. No. It’s the other way around. I believe the audience is smart enough to come around.”

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , , ,