The collapse of Al Jazeera America is going to put about 700 journalists out of work, and as you think about this high number keep in mind that when the Qatar-owned news channel was setting up three years ago, it got about 12,000 job applications. Any decent job in journalism is a precious commodity.
“I never thought it would survive,” says a former AJA newsman who’d already left. (He asked not to be identified so he could speak freely.) He offered a number of reasons common to postmortems of business failures. AJA—bankrolled in part by the royal family of Qatar and run out of Doha—“never really understood this market.” The original CEO was a “boob” and his replacement, a solid newsman named Al Anstey, didn’t come on until last May. By then it was too late. The owners “got tired of throwing good money after bad.” The royal family originally “spent money like it was water” in America, but once the world price of oil took a nosedive they thought twice.
“The name was a killer for them,” says the former AJA newsman. “I would have changed the name.” Understandably, the parent Al Jazeera Media Network wanted to extend its brand, but perhaps in these parts the brand needed concealing. And he adds, “They did serious stories, but they needed to do more ‘Holy shit!’ stories.”
When AJA finally did a “holy shit” story and made national headlines with it, the story linked pro athletes like Peyton Manning and Ryan Howard to performance-enhancing drugs; Howard filed suit and Manning called the report “complete garbage.” My AJA contact agrees that the report was a bad piece of work, but he doesn’t think it had anything to do with the decision to close AJA. By the time AJA aired it, that die had already been cast.
Then there was the fact that Al Jazeera already offered the international channel Al Jazeera English, an excellent service launched in 2006 that was available in the U.S. (in Chicago, on Channel 11) until AJA supplanted it. But AJA never measured up. “My wife’s an avid news consumer,” says the former AJA staffer. “She liked Al Jazeera English a lot better than Al Jazeera America. She said that’s because they do stories she never saw anywhere else.” He recalled a report on Bangladesh that no American news shop would ever have bothered to put together.
After telling me AJA never found its audience, he refined his observation. Actually, there was no audience to find. AJA would have had to create one, and it didn’t try hard enough. Instead it assumed its “serious journalism” would distinguish it from CNN and Fox and an audience would find it. The audience that did amounted to about 30,000 viewers.
I stopped looking in on AJA a few weeks after it launched. A debate was raging in Washington over what the U.S. should do about the chemical weapons employed in Syria to crush the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. If ever a Middle Eastern perspective was necessary, it was then, and I tuned in AJA expecting stories I’d never see anywhere else. I didn’t find them.
I wrote then:
According to “How Al Jazeera America Tackled the Crisis Over Syria,” a report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, AJA covered the “Syrian crisis” like the other cable news channels, not like a story you’d think it was born to own. Its focus was on whether the U.S. should respond militarily, and like CNN and the others, the message it most frequently conveyed was yes, the U.S. should.
That’s not what most Americans were saying, but it reflects who cable news was talking to. “President Obama or members of his administration showed up in 66% of Al Jazeera America stories,” reported Pew, exceeding even CNN (59 percent). “Syrian sources were cited in 26% of Al Jazeera America stories and 24% on CNN. On both channels, congressional representatives were sources in 16% of the stories.”
And “despite having access to more than 60 international Al Jazeera network bureaus, about three-quarters (76%) of Al Jazeera America stories originated from Washington, D.C., or New York City”—again higher even than CNN (71 percent). It was a performance that makes me wonder if AJA even trusts the news it gets from Al Jazeera’s international bureaus, a thought that I doubt that the channel intended to put into our heads.
It was easy to forget that AJA was around. And I did.