Why Al Jazeera America is dying

January 14, 2016
Category: Newsletters

Good morning.

  1. Lots of strengths but not enough
    The CEO of Al Jazeera America asked me what I thought of the network at a Washington charity dinner shortly after it began. Jack Daniels on the rocks in hand, I mentioned my own regular appearances as a pundit and how much I liked some of what I saw. But I suggested three problems: the need to more sharply differentiate themselves from the cable competition, the willingness to financially support it for another five or six years at least and, finally, the name. It had to go. It freaked out too many people and made booking guests, notably politicians, difficult. He claimed his surveys didn’t show that at all. But that’s all sophistry now with word that it’s closing and about 700 jobs will be lost. (CNN/Money)

    Its business model “is simply not sustainable,” it said. (Poynter) The official announcement missed many other reasons: It was very poorly managed and lacked a coherent vision. The name could not be overcome. It spent too much building a news operation when one already existed (Al Jazeera English). It never conceived must-see shows, though it had solid ones and some terrific journalists. Its daytime programming, heavily based on news coverage worldwide, was more interesting than its prime-time fare. It never found a breakout personality as it seemed to assume the news itself was its personality (a tricky notion these days). Marketing was atrocious. Management was far too top-down. It was too derivative in formats and lines of questioning (as I was reminded Monday during an AJA appearance about the presidential campaign). Perhaps a few too many hires were alums of broadcast and cable networks with a similar set of professional values. Nobody was stirring any pots like a Roger Ailes at Fox News. That all said, it provided a dramatically more diverse range of news than its competitors. It was broader in scope than even CNN’s international version, which itself is a refreshing not-so-American-centric departure and an informative reminder that there’s a bigger world out there. Watching Al Jazeera America, you felt like you were in a hotel in Rome or Addis Ababa, not Minneapolis or Dallas. If you were among the few checking it out, you wound up a bit smarter for having done so.

  2. The Powerball ‘sucker game’
    There’s been a lot of lottery boosterism coursing the media, leading up to word of three winners. And, let’s admit, at least this trenchant headline about the chances of winning: “Look, you already know it’s unlikely — but just how unlikely? More unlikely than having two penises or being married to your cousin?” (The Guardian) But perhaps “This Powerball sucker game fervor is an opportunity to seriously examine how lotteries have or have not lived up to the promises that supporters made when they passed lotto laws.” (Poynter) It is, in theory. But don’t bet on it. Oh, if you want some intentionally “uninformative graphics” about Powerball, you can find one droll effort that details “People planning to tell their bosses to f— off the day after the Powerball draw.” (McSweeney’s)
  3. If Jeffrey Goldberg had won
    The Israeli-American journalist, who writes mostly about international affairs, had a game plan: “If I won Powerball, I would buy al-Jazeera America but then turn it into a Jewish cooking network.” (@JeffreyGoldberg) Ah, yes, it might also be nice to see Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed from the competition on a “Chopped: World Leaders Edition” hosted by Food Network stalwart Ted Allen.
  4. Why does this sound familiar?
    Brits are supportive of government-mandated cost cuts at the BBC but not at the expense of their favorite programs, suggest responses from 11,583 people to questions from its governing body. (The Guardian) This seems a media counterpart to all those Americans who grouse about big-spending government and the need for reductions but, of course, won’t tolerate the notion of cuts in their public transit, garbage pick-ups, police forces, etc.
  5. NBC’s Netflix denial
    NBC’s research boss told TV critics that Netflix doesn’t pose any big threat to the broadcast networks. “I don’t believe there’s enough stuff on Netflix that is broad enough and consistent enough to affect us in a meaningful way on a consistent basis.” (Adweek) But “what if Netflix is the Amazon of the entertainment industry — the embodiment of a slow, expensive, high-risk effort to consume the entirety of your business?” (The New York Times) In the early 1990s, I used to routinely hear esteemed network research chiefs spin TV reporters like a top about why they really, truly weren’t all that worried about cable television and audience fragmentation. It was a crock then and perhaps the same now when it comes to pooh-poohing the likes of Netflix.
  6. Hillary’s emails
    The Clinton doubters have grist for their mill and suspicions about the evil press. “The latest cache hit Friday when the State Department released 1,262 more of Mrs. Clinton’s emails. That dump contained another 66 emails deemed classified, which means State has now discovered some 1,340 instances of the nation’s top diplomat handling sensitive material on an unsecure server—including spy satellite information and the name of at least one confidential CIA source.” But “The Clintons are banking that most of the media will continue to ignore the email scandal. Democratic elites and their media allies have invested their hopes for 2016 on Mrs. Clinton’s electoral inevitability. Mr. Sanders’s latest polling boomlet is a message that many rank-and-file Democrats are having second thoughts.” (The Wall Street Journal) Meanwhile, a formal endorsement today of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy by the left-leaning Nation doesn’t bring up this topic. (The Nation)
  7. Bill’s sex life (redux)
    When Juanita Broaddrick reiterated a 17-year-old allegation that Bill Clinton, running for governor in 1978, raped her, it inspired at least one lengthy compendium of related allegations. (Vox) Now at least one big organization, NBC News, concedes it discussed an on-air interview with Broaddrick, now 73, but has apparently decided there’s really no news value. (BuzzFeed) Nevertheless, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president, right-wing media won’t let this whole rehashed topic go.
  8. A media mess-up with Trump
    George Washington University’s John Sides, who oversees the very good “Monkey Cage” political science blog, has continued to be skeptical about Donald Trump’s candidacy. Now he suggests the media makes a fundamental error in misinterpreting the size of crowds at his rallies as testament to Trump’s potential ballot box potency. “Of course, at least some people who attend the big rallies for Sanders or Trump are dedicated, passionate supporters who will vote.” But analogizing rally crowds to voting could be a big mistake, as he explains. (The Washington Post)
  9. James Fallows’ crusade
    Fallows is an eminent longtime journalist and national correspondent for The Atlantic. But he’s had enough. No, not necessarily with crazy Republicans on the Hill, President Obama falling short on certain promises or the state of infrastructure decline. The problem is noisy leaf blowers. He’s “part of a crusade in his upper Northwest D.C. neighborhood of Wesley Heights to ban loud, two-stroke engine leaf blowers in the city. The writer has elevated the fight with a high-profile platform, chronicling his thoughts on leaf blowers and involvement in local politics on the Atlantic in a series of blog posts he calls ‘Leafblower Menace.'” (The Washington Post) If he attains success, I’d urge labor on the following municipal menaces: jerks driving while on cell phones, people listening to loud music on headphones in elevators and individuals with the middle seat in a row at a ball game constantly arising to go the john. This is a citizen journalism we can all agree upon.

  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin
    Lynnley Browning is now a reporter at Bloomberg. Previously, she was a reporter at Newsweek. Bill Allison is now a campaign finance reporter at Bloomberg. Previously, he was a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. (Email) | Job of the day: Contently is looking for a senior brand editor. Get your resumes in! (Journalism Jobs) | Send Ben your job moves: bmullin@poynter.org.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.