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.”