There’s going to be a new kid on the news block starting next Tuesday, August 20. The new comer is Al Jazeera America, and it will be a 24/7 news network, with 12 U.S. bureaus, more than 850 employees, a bunch of household names, and a mission statement that says it will play it straight down the middle, do long form journalism and investigative pieces to boot.
Its launch will also be somewhat historic.
So what’s the big deal?
It’s not real easy to start an all-news network, particularly at a time when the big boys in U.S. broadcast are courting their viewers and often taking partisan positions to grab attention. When cable and satellite and multiple platforms have fragmented the once-solid news audience. Much less start a news network for a U.S. audience that has its origins in the Arab world and is keeping its Arabic title – Al Jazeera, “the island” – as part of its name.
The new network intends to provide news about America for an American audience. And do it the old fashioned way, without the shouting.
Al Jazeera America (AJAM) will have bureaus in New York (the headquarters bureau), Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle.
It has hired 850 people to work in front of and behind the camera, at a time when established news organizations are cutting back or not hiring at all.
If the world has gotten smaller because of telecommunications and the ability to travel, this country can still seem to be a mystery, linked only by weather reports and a sense of “what are they doing out there in (…fill in the blank…).”
That is part of the answer AJAM wants to provide. It is another piece in the global Al Jazeera Media Network – a combination of 27 separate networks around the world, including BeIn Sports, a major global sports network, news channels in dozens of countries (Turkey is coming soon), and Al Jazeera English, an English-language channel that has enormous credibility for down-the-middle reporting from overseas. The network was founded only in 1996.
The global network’s headquarters is in Qatar, and it receives an operating subsidiary from the government (it is not government-owned). It must raise additional funds through the sale of advertising and subscriber revenues, according to a spokesman; the network hopes to break even in two or three years.
The operating subsidy itself will give it a leg up over the competition, its managers believe: instead of having to have as many as 16-22 minutes of commercials per hour, it will have 8-10. More news, more of the time.
One of the things not mentioned about in the game plan for the American network will be its ability to cover international news. Let’s say there’s political disruption in, oh, I don’t know, Egypt. Al Jazeera America should be able to call upon its international affiliates and regional bureaus to beam lots of video and on-the-ground to all of its U.S. stations. While there are lots of solid international news organizations and independent videographers able to do the same thing, having the reporters under one big tent could make a big difference.
The opening for AJAM may well have been softened up by the partisanship of FOX and MSNBC, plus the endless panels of “analysts” on many shows, whose skills seem to be in analyzing other analysts while looking really serious, angry or just good.
Sixty Minutes remains a remarkable product, decades after its launch. But it comes only for one hour once a week. The Sunday talk shows help define and describe the national agenda, often with distinction (but are also only on for an hour). CNN, the original all-news network, is in almost a public rearrangement of its news-defining mission. Local TV stations struggle to produce the quality they want. C-SPAN covers the U.S. Congress and its branches. The BBC and the Guardian have moved into the U.S. market, it is believed, because there is a defined population of people who want more news and less cute babies. The internet gives lots of access to lots of material, often originated by these sources, but in shorter bites.
The opportunity to get into the U.S. market occurred last January, when the owners of Current TV announced that they would sell the channel to Al Jazeera Media Network for a reported $500 million. By taking over the existing channel, co-founded by former vice president Al Gore, any number of licensing and ownership hurdles were circumvented.
It has been only since then, in January, a spokesman said, that plans for the U.S. operation were launched. And if you’re looking for work, click on the “jobs” tab on the website (http://america.aljazeera.com/), since they seem to still be hiring.
“While journalists may be eager to join a news outlet that promises to air in-depth coverage,” Roger Yu wrote in USA Today, “media analysts wonder how excited American viewers will be about a Middle Eastern-owned news operation with a controversial past and a programming approach that avoids shrill partisan voices. The fact that it's backed by owners who seem to have put profit on the back-burner gives the network's experiment a better shot, company watchers say.” Yu has covered the network extensively since January.
The controversy refers to the original Al Jazeera, which ran Osama bin Laden’s tapes at far greater length than many people wanted after 9/11, and gave more air time to Palestinian positions than Americans were used to. But as the Huffington Post stated in January, “Though it remains controversial for many, its reporting from the Middle East during and after the Arab Spring gave it a vastly increased profile — and a new credibility — inside the US.”
Brand name journalists who have signed on include Joie Chen, Soledad O’Brien, Ali Velshi (alumni of CNN), Sheila McVicar (CBS) and John Seigenthaler (NBC). The network president is Kate O’Brian, former ABC News senior vice president who had been with the network for 30 years.
And here’s a link to their current line-up: http://politi.co/1a5WIlP
I am reminded of three other news organization launches in the U.S. that were transformative. One was the launch of CNN on June 1, 1980; the second was the launch of Bloomberg News in 1990, and the third was the launch of POLITICO in 2007.
CNN rode to success on the wings of the brilliant insight of its founder, Ted Turner, that you could beam a signal up to a satellite from anywhere and have it come down right where you wanted it (like, your TV).
Bloomberg News came along at a time when traditional news organizations were shedding reporters left and right; it scooped them up for its unique business model, keyed to the Bloomberg terminal, and an empire was born.
POLITICO founders John F. Harris and Jim Vandehei tried to convince their bosses at the Washington Post that an all-politics-all-the-time web-based entity was just the thing for a town that eats, drinks and dreams politics, lobbying and power. Nope, not our thing, they were told. So they quit their day jobs and started covering the heck out of Washington’s one true industry. They are quite successful, thank you very much, and the Washington Post has been sold to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, for $250 million, comparatively speaking, a paltry amount.
It’s important to be out there when news breaks. CNN launched in 1980 and had the good fortune to be the new kid on the block in 1981 when Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married. Talk about wall-to-wall coverage of an essential non-event that put the once-derided “Chicken Noodle News” on the map. Same thing five years later, in 1996, when a bomb exploded at the Atlanta Olympics. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who stayed up all night watching CNN, wishing I was a cop reporter again and working that story. If you wanted live coverage you knew where to get it.
And now we have Al Jazeera America, backed by an oil-rich conglomerate with a government subsidy to help tide it over, coming in to provide impartial news about America and the world that America inhabits, with a focus on long-form broadcast journalism and investigative pieces. Could be fun, and even beneficial, to watch.