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Thursday, October 19, 2017

After three years of financial struggles, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) executives announced that the network will stop broadcasting at the end of April, while its sister company announced that it would expand English-language digital operations in the U.S. The closure of AJAM marks the final chapter of a turbulent existence, in which the channel invested heavily but failed to gain a meaningful market share in American television news.

AJAM’s chief executive, Al Anstey, claimed that the network’s lack of success was due to an unsustainable business model. In a memo to AJAM staff, he said the “decision is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges.”

Media reporters speculated that the network failed in part because of its hesitancy to provide the sort of hard-hitting coverage its parent company was known for. AJAM operated more as Al Jazeera Lite, with leadership perhaps too worried of, once again, being branded an “enemy media” channel or clashing with the American government as publicly as it did during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Glenn Greenwald certainly thought so, writing in his column on The Intercept: “From the start, employees complained vociferously that network executives were paralyzed by fear, believing they had to avoid all hints of bias and opinion in order to steer clear of what these executives regarded as the lethal stench of the Al Jazeera brand for American audiences.”

Except that stench wasn’t lethal at all. Prior to the arrival of AJAM in 2012, roughly half of Al Jazeera’s 22 million monthly web views came from the U.S. The livestream was particularly popular with American viewers who wanted news of equal or better quality than what was homegrown in the U.S. But the deal Al Jazeera made with the American cable companies involved getting rid of its online livestream and automatically redirecting users to AJAM’s website. The network was only available in 60 million American homes, barely half of the 100 million homes that have cable. Al Jazeera employees privately complained that their U.S.-based web views took a nose dive once the new channel was set up.

The low price of oil was another factor in the network’s folding. Oil is important to Al Jazeera because the media network is reliant on the Qatari government for funds. With oil hovering around $30 a barrel, the shortfall in oil revenue forced Al Jazeera to spend more judiciously. This was combined with a hiring freeze that has been in place since the leadership of the channel changed from Wadah Khanfar, a long-time Palestinian resident of Qatar, to Ahmad bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the ruling family.

Al Jazeera English released its own press release, in which it said it was going to expand digital operations in the U.S. in coming months. A subhead briefly mentioned that AJAM was going offline in the coming months. But the biggest takeaway is that Al Jazeera English said it was “its intention to expand its existing international digital services to broaden its multi-platform presence in the United States.” While it is unclear what a broadened, multi-platform presence will look like, hopefully it will include unrestricted access to Al Jazeera English’s livestream — just as it was before Al Jazeera America came along.

Photo: An Al Jazeera English newsroom. Sarah Mirk/Flickr

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