May 28, 2013

Al Jazeera America’s biggest challenge: ’getting people to show up’

It’s not on the air yet but, already, Al Jazeera America is creating a buzz in the world of journalism. Unlike so many news outlets that have been shedding staff the past few years, it’s hiring (and hiring big), bringing on about 800 employees as it prepares to launch an ambitious cable news channel later this year.

As it aims to gain a foothold in the U.S., Al Jazeera America—one of more than 20 channels operated by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network—faces a lingering perception problem that has hindered previous efforts to penetrate the U.S. market. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the networks’ flagship, Al Jazeera Arabic, was widely viewed as a conduit for al Qaeda. And when the parent company created the Al Jazeera English satellite news channel seven years ago, most U.S. cable and satellite operators declined to carry it and most American viewers could access it only online. (See this 2012 Pew Research study on Arab-American Media.)

Now, Al Jazeera’s owner, the emir of Qatar, is taking a new route into the American market. Earlier this year, the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, paid an estimated $500 million for  Current TV, the cable channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The move will give Al Jazeera America, currently scheduled to launch in late summer, access to nearly 50 million households in the United States—roughly half the number of American homes that receive CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

There has been much speculation about why the head of the small, oil-and-gas-rich nation—which, according to the CIA World Factbook, has the world’s wealthiest per capita income ($102,800)—would want to gain greater access to American television viewers. Most experts suggest the expansion is part of an effort by Qatar to be a larger player on the world stage. In a statement, an Al Jazeera executive said, “Our commitment to the voice of the voiceless, bringing stories from under-reported regions across the world and putting the human being at the center of our news agenda is at the heart of what we do.”

Whatever its owner’s motives, Al Jazeera is making major changes in its approach to potential U.S. viewers. Its existing English-language channel, Al Jazeera English (soon to be renamed Al Jazeera International), is based in Doha and concentrates on global news. By contrast, Al Jazeera America will be headquartered in New York City and will focus on U.S. domestic issues, according to spokesman Tony Fox. Upon launching, it plans to have 12 bureaus scattered around the country, the same number as CNN.  It also will have five foreign bureaus and use news reports from Al Jazeera’s 65 existing bureaus around the world.

By way of comparison, the BBC has 41 international bureaus, CNN has 33, MSNBC has 14 and Fox has six.

FT_PJ_13.05.28_NewsNetworksSidebar_220pxMeanwhile, Al Jazeera America says it is hiring 800 journalists and other employees, almost all of them in the U.S., to staff the new operation. The investigative unit alone will employ 16 journalists, and the Washington bureau will include one White House and one congressional correspondent, among others. Al Jazeera America reportedly will be broadcasting from a studio most recently used by ABC’s “This Week” in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

A typical day on Al Jazeera America will include 11 hours of traditional news, starting with a three-hour weekday morning show, with anchors in the studio and reporters in the field; a one-hour news magazine; talk shows, and programs devoted to sports and entertainment, its spokesman said. The channel also will air a one-hour news magazine and has plans to produce and acquire documentaries.

What it won’t air, Fox said, are “shout-fests.”

The new channel has hired some respected names in journalism. Already on board are Ali Velshi, former chief business correspondent for CNN, who will create a primetime business program; Ed Pound, an investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal who will head the investigative unit; John Meehan, formerly the global executive producer for Thomson Reuters, who will be a senior executive producer; Andrea Stone, formerly a reporter for The Huffington Post and USA Today, and Tony Karon, a former senior editor for Time magazine’s website, who will be senior online executive producers for the digital team.

But even as it plans to build a robust news organization, the fledgling channel faces an obvious hurdle. News in early January that Al Jazeera had purchased Current TV elicited  questions about possible bias in its reporting, particularly on the Middle East.

Asked to pinpoint the operation’s greatest challenge, Fox said, “I think it’s probably overcoming the negative perceptions people have about Al Jazeera….The big challenge is getting people to show up.”

Topics: News Audience Trends and Attitudes, Foreign News, Newsroom Investment and Resources, State of the News Media

  1. is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project.

  2. is a Research Analyst at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project.


  1. Howard4 years ago

    let the interested viewers watch al jazeera… and compare it to what is now called news in this country.

    i think that it would force the US news media to vastly improve the slop that is fed to people.

    the comparison would be like wine tasting…grape kool-aid vs. vineyard quality, winemakers

    would not have to go to any hassle to enter a strong choice in this competition….Thunderbird would be

    overwhelmingly the choice..!!!!

  2. swhuey4 years ago

    I hope they bring some content to television news. I am so tired of bar stool-cell phone reports. Our domestic are so poor, you should have no problem blowing them away.

  3. Dan Robinson4 years ago

    I work over seas in Africa and Al Jazeera is the best news station hands down. The BBC is a close second. Then CNN. The networks are lame. PBS news hour is pretty good but they still follow the same tired stories that the networks follow. Al Jazeera allows us to see the world outside America. I hope there Al Jazerra America is a success!

  4. G Johnson4 years ago

    “Its existing English-language channel, Al Jazeera English (soon to be renamed Al Jazeera International), is based in Doha and concentrates on global news.” I recall that I recently read that they decided not to rename English to International – thinking that the parent Al Jazeera was international in scope.

    1. Adhi Pratama4 years ago

      I think Al Jazeera English will still be the name. Al Jazeera International was the callsign before they changed it hours before launching.

      I’m pretty sure that Al Jazeera America will have an extensive news from home, while also maintain the large portion of international news from their extensive media (Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Balkans, and probably Al Jazeera Urdu & Al Jazeera Turk in the future). Hopefully the will maintain the compelling scope of news, while also offering multiple side of viewpoints.

  5. Bill King4 years ago

    “Bias in reporting on the Middle East”?

    Yeah, gee, that would be novel in the American media, wouldn’t it? It might be a hoot to hear what the other side thinks once in a while. Granted, that could lead to conversations breaking out, but it’s a chance worth taking.

  6. JF Kyle4 years ago

    I believe some further qualification is required with regard to what exactly constitutes a news bureau. If, by news bureau, you mean a brick and mortar office housing a staff, then it is my understanding that Al Jazeera intends to have 12 bureaus. By that same standard CNN, much like NBC, ABC and CBS, has considerably less than 12 bureaus and closer to four, covering their respective multi-state regions. Most of the American networks have a presence of some sort in many cities throughout the United States. These are typically stringers or staff members working from their homes. However, long gone are the days of a dozen and more brick and mortar bureaus with the strong presence of an actual staff of desk personnel, producers and camera crews. Perhaps this is where Al Jazeera’s strength will shine through.