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New Al Jazeera Digital Division Chief on How Facebook, Google, Control News (EXCLUSIVE)

Al Jazeera on June 16 announced the launch of a new digital division headed by Yaser Bishr who is in charge of taking the Doha-based broadcaster’s digital push to the next level following the launch in 2014 of AJ+, its online channel available in English, Spanish and, as of this month Arabic, via an app, and also on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Bishr conceived AJ+ in San Francisco and tailored it specifically for a U.S. audience at a time when the Al Jazeera America channel was struggling on cable in the U.S. That channel was shut down earlier this year, in April. AJ+ is instead going strong, especially in the English speaking world. Bishr spoke to Variety about the challenges of the changing global media landscape and his ambitions and concerns for Al Jazeera in the digital space going forward.

How did AJ+ get started and how is it doing? 

We started out in San Francisco, after I put together a small r&d team. We launched AJ+ about two years ago – English first, then a small-scale Spanish version.  We branded it specifically for the U.S. audience and found traction there. We are growing significantly in terms of our audience base specifically in the U.S. and English-speaking countries. Now it’s among the top three news sources on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago we launched the Arabic version of AJ+.

Can you quantify the success of AJ+ with some numbers?

Since launch we have had close to five billion views across platforms, and growing. The reach on Facebook is significant. The engagement is very high. We have scored a weekly reach on Facebook as high as two hundred million, based on their numbers.

It seems that on the U.S. front with this digital push you are you trying to compensate for the Al Jazeera America television channel closing down. Is that the case?

Actually digital was always part of the U.S. plan. Al Jazeera ventured into America with a traditional TV model, with cable. But at the same time we had a two-pronged strategy: one for TV and the other for digital, which was AJ+. It’s no secret we made significant investments in TV, we had quality journalism; we really had an A-team there. But the market is the market, you really can’t change it’s direction. We didn’t get the audience that we expected. At the same time we had AJ+ coming out of San Francisco and it was growing significantly, so we made the decision to continue to invest in digital. We will continue to invest in digital in the United States. However we will also have a TV presence in the U.S. through the Al Jazeera English channel which will be back.

Are there other digital products, strategies or platforms besides AJ+ that you are looking at to distribute Al Jazeera content?

Potentially yes. I have a big concern: our content lives on third party platforms and they are basically under the control of some algorithm that I can’t really predict. We – and I mean not just as Al Jazeera, but publishers in general – believe that we have editorial control. But at the end of the day the Facebook algorithm has editorial control, because it decides what goes on the news feed and what not. In the U.S. Facebook has been accused of burying conservative content. It’s a big issue, and we have to figure out a way where there is some transparency in terms of the algorithm, so we can all have a level playing field. We have to go where the audience is and Facebook is a significant force. But we are also publishers, and original content providers. So we have to come together and have a discussion with Facebook – and Google, for that matter – regarding some clarity on their algorithms.

How is the news-gathering side different for the digital platform vis-a-vis the TV side?

For digital we will definitely leverage our existing news-gathering machine, which is really a powerhouse. That requires co-ordination with the rest of the channels. But we will also be providing some digital training, because gathering and producing content for social media and online platforms is significantly different from TV. Creating the division will help us scale that. Media companies that have experimented with online and TV have found that you have to have production that is specific for that audience.

The Arab world has one of the highest densities of millennials, so digital is certainly a great way to tap into that segment. Are there areas in the Middle East where digital can really boost your presence? 

What I want to emphasize here is that we want to invest in digital in the Middle East, but TV continues to be a very, very important platform in the region. We are free-to-air. Anyone with a satellite dish in the Middle East can hook up and watch us. There is nothing really limiting our TV broadcast in the Middle East, other than traditional ways of blocking our signal reaching a specific country but that has been sporadic, and we have actually established a satellite broadcast system that cannot be jammed. What we are really conscious about in looking at the Middle East is that it’s a little bit lagging in terms of Internet audience. However social media played a very important role during the Arab Spring. So we want to continue to invest and provide Al Jazeera news to our audience in the region through AJ+ and a also through a few other digital things coming up on the drawing board.

What are they?

The vision is really to have a portfolio of different digital products. We are looking into VR; we are looking into digital radio; we have a few things coming in the pipeline. We intend to create an ecosystem of digital products that will satisfy the millennials and the young generation everywhere.

What is the situation with Al Jazeera in Egypt?

We currently have have no bureaus in Egypt, however we broadcast there. Anyone with a satellite dish can watch us. We also have live streaming through our websites, and will continue to support that. And also we have AJ+ and other digital outlets that can’t really be stopped. If you want to stop it you have to block Facebook. The digital platform is strong and it will give us the penetration we’d like to have.

What about other parts of the world?

It’s in the plan. I am still putting together our broad strategy. Asia is a very important market. Africa for us is a very important market in terms of our digital presence. We are looking into AJ+ in other languages other than Arabic, English and Spanish. But we have to look into partnering with other publishers and use media organisations in countries where we would like to have a presence. I think we have to have some hybrid model. In the U.S. we went at it alone. But going into markets like India and China we have to look into the option of teaming up with partners as well.

 

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