Al Jazeera America debuted this week and everyone seems to agree it is a legitimate news organization with the funding and the foundations to do good journalism.
The big question now is who will watch and why. Judging by Al Jazeera America’s promotional marketing (sponsorship on NPR, full-page ads in The New Yorker and The Washington Post), it is shooting for a certain demographic: highly educated, middle class, engaged in public policy.
It seems to have the most diverse staff of any national television network and a sincere dedication to covering serious and significant news stories. And with 850 to 900 journalists, according to the BBC, it has enough resources to hit the ground running.
So what will success look like? There are several different ways to track the new network’s growth and traction.
The easiest measure is ratings, which are likely to remain small. Al Jazeera America shows up in fewer than 50 million American households, compared with 100 million for the other cable channels. Even as it gains respectability and greater carriage, it’s competing for what many believe to be a dwindling audience.
According to Pew’s State of the News Media Report, total viewership for cable news practically stagnated in 2012, despite the presidential election. That suggests there might be a ceiling for that audience. So any ratings success will have to be viewed in that light.
Revenue is a benchmark for many for-profit news organizations. It looks like Al Jazeera America is starting out with a fairly low inventory, both online and on the air. So it has nowhere to go but up. But will the owners ever break even? It’s hard to imagine an owner willing to lose money in perpetuity.
In recent years, revenue from subscriber fees has become a larger portion of cable news revenue, while advertising revenue has decreased. This puts Al Jazeera America in a particular revenue bind. Since it’s still begging to be carried on many cable plans, it doesn’t have the power to command a huge fee. Because it doesn’t appear in many markets, some national advertisers won’t even look at it. So revenue may be an even tougher battle than ratings.
Influence may be easier to achieve than revenue or ratings. News organizations with a small audience sometimes gain a reputation for being influential, or fighting above their weight class, by consistently producing provocative stories that other news organizations must follow.
Given the size of its staff and the experience of some of its journalists, it’s entirely possible that Al Jazeera America will become a must-see for journalists and others hoping to stay abreast of important conversations, even if the American public isn’t as engaged.
Awards are another area where Al Jazeera America is likely to be successful. If you have time, money and good journalists you can expect award-winning journalism to follow. So expect to see Emmys, Peabodys and Duponts piling up on the office shelves.
At some point, some big story is going to break and Al Jazeera America will be in the best position to cover it. It might be a breaking news story in a city where other broadcasters don’t have offices. Or it might be a natural disaster.
Just like Americans found themselves watching Al Jazeera English because it had the best footage of the Egyptian revolution, eventually there will be a big story near Nashville or Detroit and Al Jazeera America will have an edge.
“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.