Al Jazeera America Will Be ‘Envy of the Industry,’ Chief Says

Deep pockets make fledgling cabler a journalistic unicorn amid cost-cutting elsewhere

Al Jazeera America president Kate O’Brian has told staffers that the fledgling cabler is on its way to being “the envy of the industry” as it heads into 2014 with ambitious plans.

O’Brian can be forgiven for a little hyperbole in her year-end memo to the troops. But in truth, she’s not that far off the mark.

Plenty of journos have taken green-eyed notice that Al Jazeera America is plowing money into building up the kind of hard assets that network news divisions used to enjoy, namely reporters and bureaus around the country. O’Brian is the longtime ABC News exec who was recruited barely a month before AJA’s Aug. 20 bow and has led the breakneck expansion of operations while also overseeing programming.

SEE ALSO: Al Jazeera Vows Expansion Push with More Staff, More Shows

There’s also the OMG-worthy fact that O’Brian’s boss, AJA interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi  has said for months that AJA’s well-heeled parent org is not concerned about ratings or profitability while the channel is in its infancy. Those are words straight out of a dream sequence from HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Those are words that journalists at Tribune Co. newspapers and Time Inc. publications would love to hear as they brace to be separated from their motherships next year as free-standing entities.

Moreover, AJA is investing time and money in deep-dive and investigative reporting about meaty and undeniably significant issues ranging from homelessness and urban ills to political corruption to health and environmental concerns. Think “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in its glory days, except that AJA is round the clock. It’s also endowed with international resources through the rest of the Al Jazeera Media Network — which makes a difference in covering stories like the conflict in Syria, the typhoon in the Philippines and the death of Nelson Mandela.

It’s clear that Al Jazeera, backed by the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, has been on a mission for more than a decade to build itself up into international news organization with unassailable credibility a la BBC News. You don’t have an international news organization without feet on the street in the U.S.

That strategic focus, combined with deep pockets, makes AJA a journalistic unicorn at a time of continued cost-cutting and belt-tightening elsewhere.

So far AJA is up to more than 800 domestic staffers, and it expects to add significant numbers to its Gotham- and D.C.-based operations. It has also vowed to grow its network of U.S. bureaus, which now stands at 12.

It’s a good thing that the parent company is giving AJA a pass on profitability because ratings to date have been unimpressive, showing auds for most primetime shows on the low end of the five-figure range. Yet distribution is inching ahead, notably with the Time Warner Cable deal that kicked in this month, taking AJA to more than 48 million subscribers.

Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder O’Brian’s year-end message is upbeat. She has the luxury of focusing her staff on the quality of the work, not the number of viewers — at least for now.

O’Brian’s memo also made mention of the detainment in Egypt Tuesday of four Al Jazeera journalists whom the government accuses of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false information.

 “Let us all keep our colleagues Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fawzy in our thoughts,” she wrote. “Their incarceration highlights the importance, and the inherent dangers, of the fearless journalism we espouse. “

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