In 2013, I wrote a piece for TVWW on Al Jazeera America’s August 20 premiere in which I compared it to the fictional channel in HBO’s The Newsroom. That much-praised show was canceled after three seasons and the real life newsroom is meeting the same fate.
On January 13, 2016, Al Jazeera’s Media Network announced it was shutting down AJAM, because its business model is “no longer sustainable.” The announcement, while unexpected, was not entirely surprising for the network that promised to air, “fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news.”
In the very first episode of The Newsroom, producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer, left) talks to newscaster Will McAvoy about what the news could be, she could have been reciting AJAM’s mission.
“We’re going to do a good news show and make it popular at the same time,” MacKenzie tells Will. “People will want the news if you give it to them with integrity. Not everybody, not even a lot of people. Five percent. And five percent more of anything is what makes a difference in this country. So we can do better.”
William Lafi Youmans, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who’s writing a book on Al Jazeera, suggests this was precisely the problem. “What really doomed Al Jazeera America from the beginning was its decision to offer straight, sober journalism via legacy cable and satellite TV carriers, distribution platforms on which such a product is fast becoming extinct,” he writes in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.
Al Jazeera America started off awash in money as well as journalistic dreams. Headquartered in New York City, with 12 domestic bureaus, with some 900 employees when it started (an estimated 700 today) and less of a dependence on commercial support. And a promise to produce any story that was good and worthwhile.
Rick Edmonds, Poynter Institute's media business analyst, told TVWW: “Starting big fast is a formula for confusion and management crises. They had plenty of that.”
The channel’s lofty goals were undermined by internal forces, such as low morale among employees, lawsuits and the replacement of a top executive. AJAM’s CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, was fired last May shortly after the New York Times reported there was “turmoil” in the newsroom including accusations of sexism and anti-Semitism which had resulted in employee resignations and discrimination lawsuits. One former employee called it a “culture of fear.” The managing director of Al Jazeera English, Al Anstey, replaced Al Shihabi promising to lead the channel into “the next stage of its development.”
Al Jazeera America’s name may have also been great disadvantage. Its parent company is funded and owned by the leaders of Qatar, an oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate. And many associated it with anti-American sentiments during the Bush era. Poynter Institute’s Edmonds suggests that when it purchased Al Gore’s struggling news network, it should have kept its name.
Edmonds told TVWW: “No matter the quality and fairness, people would assume it was Arab propaganda. Current TV, bland but a better name.”
AJAM tried to attract viewers with its high profile talent such as Ali Velshi, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora, Soledad O’Brien and Ray Suarez, but that wasn’t enough to help its dismal ratings. It didn’t help that many cable companies refused to carry it. It opened to about 43 million homes, and more than two years later was still in about 60 million of the 100 million households with cable. Its prime time ratings were below 30 thousand and daytime was around 19 thousand viewers, which put it far behind the competition.
Edmonds says the network needed more time: “I would say that AJAM could not reasonably expect much in ratings and revenue in two years. More like 6-7. But it may have been evident they never were going to get there.”
The channel was also doomed by external forces. Back when it started, oil was priced around $98 a barrel in the US. Today it’s closer to $30 a barrel, damaging the riches of its backers in Qatar.
Sadly for AJAM, it just garnered a lot of attention recently for an undercover investigative report called The Dark Side last month, which alleged the use of performance-enhancing drugs by star pro-athletes, even implicating Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. It brought the newsroom the kind of praise missing all this time. It also brought lawsuits by a couple of baseball players.
In his email to employees, CEO Al Antsy wrote: “Through your remarkable work at AJAM we have shown that there is a different way of reporting news and providing information. The foundation of this is integrity, great journalism, impartiality, and a commitment to the highest quality story telling. This will be our lasting impact, and as we produce and showcase the best of our work in the weeks to come this will be clear for everyone to see.”
It reminded me of one of the final quotes in the last episode of The Newsroom when Charlie Skinner, director of the news division for the fictional ACN, says: "You know what, kiddo, in the old days, of about 10 minutes ago, we did the news well. Do you know how? We just decided to."
Al Jazeera America says it will shut down by April 30.