Al Jazeera America is shuttering its online news operation as of today. For its swan song, the website has posted several farewell stories including a “valedictory note” headlined “Goodnight, and Good Luck” penned by senior executive digital producer Tony Karon.
After today, the Al Jazeera America website will no longer be updated although it will continue to exist as an archive of material produced during the past three years. Users will be redirected to the Al Jazeera English website for breaking news coverage and streaming video from the news org’s English-language service, which predated the August 2013 launch of Al Jazeera America as a liner news channel. The TV channel will continue to operate through April 12.
“We tried in our brief tenure to uphold the fine tradition of an American journalism that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” Karon wrote. “Tradition long predates AJAM and will hopefully long outlive it. But AJAM offered us a brief, inspirational taste of a world where talented journalists are unleashed to pursue the profession’s best traditions without commercial pressure.”
The Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera made a bold foray into the U.S. cable TV market with Al Jazeera America after purchasing the assets of Al Gore’s Current TV for an eye-popping $500 million in late 2012. Al Jazeera vowed to deliver serious and substantive journalism as counter-programming to the existing all-news cablers.
Journalists swooned as Al Jazeera execs promised that profits and ratings would be of little concern and that quality reporting and analysis would be the key metric for the business, backed by the deep pockets of the oil rich Middle Eastern state. Al Jazeera went on a hiring spree of more than 1,000 U.S.-based reporters in New York and in bureaus throughout the country. (Al Jazeera’s digital team created its own farewell website complete with contact info for staffers now looking for work.)
Al Jazeera America collected two Peabody Awards after less than year on the air, among other honors.
But the journalism Shangri-la was short-lived. Al Jazeera America drew a minuscule audience and had trouble attracting advertisers. It struggled like most independent cable channels to gain carriage among MVPDs. And it battled what proved to be the insurmountable obstacle of the negative image of Al Jazeera that persists for many Americans following the 9/11 attacks and 2003 war in Iraq.
Beyond those external battles, Al Jazeera faced internal management turmoil that led to the departure of some senior editorial staffers, discrimination lawsuits and allegations of pro-Arab bias among some top business executives. Al Jazeera hastily announced in January it was pulling the plug on the Al Jazeera America. That move coincided with the slide in world oil prices that has rattled some Arab states and global financial markets.
Al Jazeera America contributor David Cay Johnston, in a farewell opinion piece headlined “The way news should be done,” praised the ethos that drove news gathering at AJAM. Johnston, a veteran investigative reporter, argued that Al Jazeera made a fatal mistake at the outset by overpaying for a linear TV channel rather than plowing resources into a streaming news operation.
Al Jazeera America “produced great journalism because it was never caught up in access journalism, in which what producers call the get matters more than the story. … The problem with this approach is that to ensure future gets, the guests are typically asked softball questions and showered with flattery,” Johnston wrote.
In the end, the effort was undone by the harsh business realities that the parent org had vowed to keep out of the Al Jazeera America newsroom. “Superb reporting, bolstered by a first-rate opinion section, found a following, just not one big enough to interest major advertisers.” Moreover, Johnston cited the “business mistake” of “paying Al Gore and his friend Joel Hyatt $500 million for Current TV and its cable system rights instead of streaming on the Internet for free.”