SEATTLE, Washington — The date is August 20, 2013 – Al Jazeera America has gone live, broadcasting to 48 million homes in the US. The cable news channel will compete with the “Big Three” of cable news: CNN, FOX and MSNBC with 14 hours of live news, magazine and discussion programs daily with news updates at the top of every hour.
Ehab Al Shihabi, the Al Jazeera executive in charge of international operations, said Al Jazeera America “will be an American news channel that broadcasts news of interest and importance to its American audience…We expect most days will primarily be domestic news. But, Al Jazeera’s 70 bureaus around the world will mean that we will have an unparalleled ability to report on important global stories that Americans are not seeing elsewhere. We will do that when it is warranted.”
In a speech done in 2008, Public Radio International’s CEO, Alisa Miller, noted that American news networks have reduced the number of their foreign bureaus by half. Aside from one-person ABC mini-bureaus in Nairobi, New Delhi and Mumbai, there are no network news bureaus in all of Africa, India or South America — places that are home to more than two billion people. The reality, Miller said, is that covering Britney (Spears) is cheaper.
Headquartered in New York, Al Jazeera America has 12 bureaus in major cities around the country, three broadcast centers, and a team of nearly 800 journalists and staff. A New York Times article by Brian Stelter earlier this year noted that Al Jazeera America is being portrayed by some as a giant stimulus project for American journalism at a time when other news organizations are suffering cutbacks. “This is the first big journalism hiring binge that anyone’s been on for a long time,” said the business reporter and anchor Ali Velshi when he left CNN in April for a prime time spot on Al Jazeera America.
According to the Pew Research Center’s report on the “State of the News Media 2013”, the American news industry is now understaffed and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30 percent since 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978. In local TV, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40 percent of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages that were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. For MSNBC, opinion, not news, fills a full 85 percent of the channel’s airtime. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events and live reports during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30 percent from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31 percent. If the American news industry is ill-equipped to cover domestic news, imagine its ability to cover foreign news.
Is a lack of resources to blame for the lack of news, or is the quality of news-making to be blamed? A reporter for the Huffington Post, Jack Mirkinson, interviewed Velshi and noted that Velshi commented that he felt the other networks were being less-than-dedicated in their pursuit of serious news. There was nothing wrong with entertainment stories, he said. “The point is none of it is news, and it has started to creep into our news world more and more. (Al Jazeera) viewers do not want entertainment. They feel that there are outlets for that…what they’d like from the news is the news.”
A recent public opinion survey conducted by the Pew found that nearly one-third of the respondents (31 percent) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to. Another survey conducted this year by the Media and Public Opinion Post asked respondents what they thought about the coverage of international news. 53 percent, or over half, said there should be more of it.
“We will take full advantage of our extraordinary reporting resources to give our viewers the most up-to-date information available no matter when they tune in,” said Al Jazeera America’s new president, Kate O’Brian.
– Maria Caluag