Al Jazeera America will be shutting its doors this coming April after a two-year stint on cable television. The news was announced at a staff-wide meeting last Wednesday.
In an email sent to the staff, Al Jazeera America chief executive Al Anstey cited economic reasons for the media agency’s closure, saying that the “decision by Al Jazeera America’s board is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”
Al Jazeera America, a subsidiary of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera Media Network, launched in 2013 with its headquarters in New York and 12 agencies across the country. Since its inception, the news network has managed to win a trove of awards for its journalism, including an Emmy, a Peabody and two Gracie Awards.
The decision by the international news conglomerate to create a base in the United States was largely due to Al Jazeera English’s popularity among American viewers; 40 percent of the online news network’s readers are from the U.S.
The network hoped the U.S. subsidiary would garner the same loyal viewership and breathe new life into cable news. Some might argue it was an experiment doomed from the outset, as cable media networks across the country saw a decline in ratings and viewership.
Despite their many achievements, crucial coverage of often-neglected news items and high hopes that it might shift the tide of journalism in America in a positive direction, Al Jazeera America was unable to amass a significant audience, with viewership teetering between 20,000 to 40,000, notably low in comparison to its rival networks.
A press release by Al Jazeera Media Network on Wednesday also announced an expansion to their existing digital services platforms, such as AJ+, which was established in 2014 and has since attained more than 2 billion video views.
The move comes parallel to a broad shift in the consumption of news to online platforms. Online news more aptly accommodates the digital landscape of today, as viewers often utilize mobile devices, as well as social media, to access the news.
“As audiences increasingly turn to multiple platforms, including mobile devices, for news and information, this expansion will allow U.S. and non-U.S. consumers alike to access the network’s journalism and content wherever and whenever they want,” the Press release stated.
“The network’s commitment to its digital transformation of its global operations is consistent with its mission to inform and engage audiences no matter who they are or where they are. By expanding its digital content and distribution services to now include the U.S., the network will be better positioned to innovate and compete in an overwhelmingly digital world to serve today’s 24-hour digitally focused audience.”
Despite their many achievements, crucial coverage of often-neglected news items and high hopes that it might shift the tide of journalism in America in a positive direction, Al Jazeera America was unable to amass a significant audience.
However, despite AJAM’s press release and their stated reasons for closing up shop, journalist Glenn Greenwald — writing for the Intercept — highlighted other factors that may have contributed to Al-Jazeera’s downfall, including internal strife, management ineptitude and sacrificing quality journalism out of a fear of “offending” American audiences by appearing “biased” based on a suspicion of the “Al-Jazeera” brand as a largely Muslim news network.
Greenwald argues, “From the start, employees complained vociferously that network executives were paralyzed by fear, believing they had to avoid all hints of bias and opinion in order to steer clear of what these executives regarded as the lethal stench of the Al Jazeera brand for American audiences…AJAM journalists typically blame one AJAM executive in particular, Ehab Al Shihabi, its executive director of international operations. Al Shihabi, whose background is in business and not journalism, was widely regarded as the prime author of the network’s identity problems and obsession with voiceless content.”
Certainly Al-Jazeera America’s digital platforms remained free from the stifling yoke of bureaucratic micromanagement that AJAM’s cable counterpart suffered under and AJ+’s unmitigated success proves Americans — by and large — prefer substance over sanitized content. I don’t particularly think poor management contributed entirely to AJAM’s cable closure but it certainly contributed to it.
At the end of his email, Anstey concluded with this poignant farewell, which seems a fitting ending to this report as well: “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.”
Image: Screengrab from website: america.aljazeera.com