Al Jazeera America Vows Expansion Push with New Shows, More Staff

AJA Interim CEO: 'We are in this not just to compete but to win'

Barely two months on the air, Al Jazeera America is vowing to hire more staffers for the news channel and open more U.S. bureaus.

The expansion push was detailed Tuesday morning by interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi and prexy Kate O’Brian. It comes on the heels of a distrib pact inked with Time Warner Cable, the nation’s third-largest MVPD, last week.

The impetus to add staff and bureaus was spurred by the encouraging results from the channel’s first two months on air and the fact that the team hastily assembled this spring and summer has been able to , Al Shihabi said in an interview.

“I am confident in the existing leadership and where we are going to take this business,” Al Shihabi said. “This is not something where we have a plan to take us through 5 years or 10 years. We are in this not just to compete but to win.”

Al Shihabi said AJA execs were measuring the response in terms of feedback from market research and volume on the AJA website. The further build out of the AJA staff, which now stands at 800, and infrastructure, was always part of the business plan. AJA announced it with fanfare today because they want to make a statement to the broader news biz and to reinforce the motivation of existing staffers that the channel is on the right track, Al Shihabi said.

“The first two months on air confirmed the assumption that there is demand for international news, there is demand for serious news,” he said. “My target audience is young people who are global-minded. They are finding us and catching up with what we are doing.”

Al Shihabi declined to cite any specific metrics for the website and channel to date. But he boldly predicted that AJA’s blend of hard news and investigative reporting would have a major impact on its more established competition.

“By 2014 I think you are going to see a huge re-shaping of the market,” he said.

The U.S. arm of the Qatar-based news organization said it will move into new headquarters in midtown Manhattan within the next 18 months, though the channel has yet to settle on a specific space. Plans for the staff and bureau expansion will unfold during the next 12 months but no specific numbers were given. Al Shihabi said Atlanta and Boston were tentative targets for new bureaus.

More staff means more shows, and AJA plans a new morning news program, a new weekly programs focusing on sports and culture. The memo also said “multiple” new documentary series are in the works. And the news channel will put even greater emphasis on investigative reporting, O’Brian said.

“More people and more bureaus plus our new programming will help us keep the promise we made to our viewers about always providing the highest possible quality journalism,” she said. “Not only will you continue to see unbiased reporting about the stories that really matter, you’ll see more of it from more places around the U.S.”

The memo added that talks with other distributors are under way. The TW Cable deal should put AJA over the 50 million subscriber base mark, but it still has a ways to go to gain parity with its fully distributed (in around 100 million homes) rivals Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC.

AJA’s growth plan also includes increased investment in marketing the channel as a home for hard news and news of substance to “Main Street America” rather than partisan bickering.

AJA is an unusual animal in today’s media biz. The parent company has made it clear it is not focused on the bottom line, unlike the situation at most of the major U.S. news orgs. The state-funded Al Jazeera org has sought to gain credibility and distribution throughout the world as it builds up the AJA brand and news-gathering infrastructure.

The entry of Al Jazeera into the U.S. market in a major way has been closely watched by U.S. journos, from the moment the org paid a whopping $500 million in January to acquire the struggling cabler Current TV from Al Gore and his partners. AJA launched on Aug. 20.

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