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.”