Al Jazeera America has disbanded its sports unit and laid off a few dozen freelancers who were brought on for the launch of the news channel last summer.
Most of the departures were freelancers who were always intended to have a finite stay following the launch or after completing specific projects.
The dissolving of the sports unit involved full-time staff, and came as an acknowledgment that AJA has no traction with its general sports coverage. Other full-time jobs affected include some production staffers on “The Stream,” which has aired as a nightly 7:30 p.m. telecast that aims to engage with viewers via social media, but will soon be scaling back to once a week.
AJA has had an uphill climb in the ratings since it bowed last August on what had been Current TV. From the start, the channel has emphasized hard news and in-depth reporting, asserting that viewers are hungering for less sensational news coverage.
Led by ABC News alum Kate O’Brian, AJA built up operations quickly last fall and winter with the hiring of some 800 staffers and the opening of a dozen bureaus around the country, thanks to the deep pockets of a parent org backed by the state of Qatar.
Many news biz pundits have credited the channel with delivering solid journalism, but skepticism remains about its viability in the face of anemic ratings frequently fall below the 100,000-viewer mark. But the parent org has repeatedly stated that it is investing in AJA for the long haul — to build the key U.S. link in its global newsgathering network — and is not concerned with ratings or advertising revenue during the startup phase.
The layoffs initiated Friday would seem to run counter to that mandate, but sources emphasized that most of those let go were working on specific projects tied to establishing the basic infrastructure and never intended for long-term jobs. Sources also said the full-time staff remains at the 800-person level despite the pinkslips.
Here is the memo O’Brian sent Friday morning to AJA staffers:
Dear Al Jazeera America Colleagues,
As we prepared for our launch over the past year we set ambitious and aggressive goals. In the seven months since launch we have built a channel that it took other networks years to do. As you all know, that required extensive effort, planning and resources. We always understood that we would need considerable resources to meet our goals. We never wavered in our commitment because we knew that a surge in our capacity was essential to a successful launch of Al Jazeera America.
As a result of this extensive planning and investment, we met our own deadlines. We should all be very proud of what has been built in such a short time. Now it is time to set our sights on new goals, requiring different levels and areas of investment and resources. We have reached what I will call our steady-state level of operations and we are bringing our staffing levels into alignment with our long-range plan as per our original business case. As a result, certain parts of our organization will expand or contract and staff levels and resources will be recalibrated.
This will have an immediate impact on some staff, freelancers, independent contractors, and other project-oriented individuals who have been with us for several months. Those that are effected have been sent a note with information on meeting their supervisors and HR representatives later today. These colleagues have provided a valuable service to us for which we are deeply grateful.
On behalf of the entire senior management team, I’d like to thank our departing staff and freelancers for all the work they did to get AJAM up and running.
You will recall Ehab’s letter last month where he affirmed the long-term commitment to Al Jazeera America. We have more than 800 staff around the country and I hope you are seeing that we’re continuing to build a strong distribution network. Our relationships with distributors, advertisers, and the media industry as a whole are strong. In addition, we are working to be a part of the community everywhere we operate.
We are continuing to build a sustainable and high-performing news organization in the tradition of the Al Jazeera Media Network. And it all starts and ends with the journalism. Our recent awards are a testimony to the high level of work Al Jazeera America is producing, day in and day out. I’m proud to work with you.