Why Al Jazeera America failed

In this Aug. 20, 2013 file photo, Al-Jazeera America editorial newsroom staff prepare for their first broadcast in New York. (AP)

News this afternoon on the cable news front: Al Jazeera America, the Qatar-backed media giant’s bold attempt to establish an editorial outpost in the United States, will be shuttered by the end of April.

AJAM has drawn miniscule ratings throughout its 26 months of existence. In a memo obtained by Politico, CEO Al Anstey told staff that the ax fell because AJAM’s “business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges.” With AJAM underwritten by the government of Qatar, early speculation is that plunging oil prices played a part in the decision.

So ends a short-lived experiment with 21st-century cable startups, an oxymoronic category if ever there was one. The underlying philosophy of AJAM was that quality journalism would trump all, but little about its journalism was especially distinctive. Add to that conventional packaging, distribution across an aging medium, and weak brand recognition, and you get a cable network shutting the door.

That’s not to say AJAM’s journalism—“fact-based,” as it was marketed—wasn’t solid work. But its traditionally-styled productions failed to differentiate themselves from existing programs. Some of its shows felt like PBS NewsHour: level-headed and inoffensive, if sometimes boring. 

That content didn’t stand out in an already crowded cable market. And AJAM faced an additional hurdle in establishing its brand, as many Americans distrusted its parent company’s global coverage and affiliation with the Qatari government. At the same time, viewers— especially young viewers—continued gravitating toward video formats that travel across the social web. Look no further than HuffPost Live, the online-only live news channel whose closure was announced this month, to see the perils of emulating old-school cable formats.

There were basic challenges with infrastructure as well, as CJR’s Dean Starkman wrote in an August 2014 feature on the company’s struggle to gain a foothold:

[T]he 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…

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 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.

Dysfunctional management only made matters worse. It all amounted to a melting pot of problems for AJAM, which typically draws an audience numbering tens of thousands. CNN and MSNBC count viewers in the hundreds of thousands, and Fox often draws millions.

Covering its own closure, AJAM reported Wednesday that the Al Jazeera mothership will continue its attempt to build an American audience, albeit with existing outlets under its umbrella.

“As audiences increasingly turn to multiple platforms, including mobile devices, for news and information, this expansion will allow US and non-US consumers alike to access the network’s journalism and content wherever and whenever they want,” the Al Jazeera Media Network said in a statement. “By expanding its digital content and distribution services to now include the US, the network will be better positioned to innovate and compete in an overwhelmingly digital world to serve today’s 24-hour digitally focused audience.” 

It’s unclear exactly what that “expansion” will entail, and whether any AJAM resources will be used to jumpstart it. A spokesman for Al Jazeera did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Regardless, the new digital focus on the American market will come too late for AJAM. Launched in 2013, it promised no-nonsense journalism uncommon among the opinion-drenched 24-hour networks. It may have been the cable channel Americans need today. But its launch came years—perhaps decades—too late. 

Correction: This post originally included a tweet on the closure from a man identified as Al Jazeera’s head of communications. He is the former head of communications. CJR has removed the tweet.

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.