Hundreds of journalists in the US are expected to be laid off by Al Jazeera in the coming months following an announcement to terminate its flailing American network.
Al Jazeera America (AJAM), which will end in April, lasted less than three years.
Despite winning several journalism awards, it was widely seen as a “towering failure” by many due to low ratings, among other factors, according to Glenn Greenwald.
It launched in August 2013 following Qatar’s reported $500 million purchase of Current TV from Al Gore (which eventually soured).
But in addition to failing to attract viewers, the channel also struggled with HR issues.
Last April, a former AJAM staffer filed a US$15 million lawsuit against the channel, alleging discrimination.
In a statement issued yesterday, AJAM CEO Al Anstey commended the work of his staff but said the changing “economic landscape” drove the decision:
“While Al Jazeera America built a loyal audience across the US and increasingly was recognised as an important new voice in television news, the economic landscape of the media environment has driven its strategic decision to wind down its operations and conclude its service.”
Anstey reiterated the financial motive for closing AJAM in an email to staff. According to Politico, he said: “Our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges.”
With oil now priced at around $30, Qatar – which funds Al Jazeera – is expected to see its first deficit in 2016 in 15 years.
In anticipation, the government has dramatically cut expenditures this year, which has entailed slashing the budget of several organizations, including Qatar Foundation, Al Jazeera and Qatar Museums.
AJAM staff were told of the April 30 closure at an employee-wide meeting yesterday.
Politico reports that some “employees were in tears, and others who were out on the road covering the campaigns and other news stories were left with uncertainty about whether they would be called back home.”
It added that those willing to stay for the final 90 days before the company shuts down would receive retention bonuses and eight weeks of severance pay, as well as outplacement services after their departure.
Speaking to Doha News, some network staffers said rumors of the closure had been swirling for weeks.
Al Jazeera also announced yesterday new plans to expand digital offerings in the US, following the success of its latest experiment AJ+.
Analysts said that the move away from cable makes sense. William Youmans, assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told Doha News:
“AJAM was a good idea in principle because of the idiosyncrasies of the US market. But, there did not appear to be a real understanding of the trend away from legacy TV to digital. AJAM was therefore behind the curve.”
Youmans, who wrote his dissertation on the Al Jazeera Media Network and is now writing a book on Al Jazeera in America, added, “Even if the US had the demand for AJAM’s brand of journalism, it was difficult for most people to access on TV.”
Online, reaction about AJAM’s demise ranged from unsurprised to somber, with some saying the network should have employed a different strategy to win hearts and minds in the US:
Oil was one factor in @AJAM's demise. Another was cable contracts. Its deals are expiring soon; distributors want to drop low-rated channels
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 13, 2016
On the shutdown of @ajam: https://t.co/VTyxIsjCNg What did it stand for? Who was the intended audience? What lens on the world did it have?
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 14, 2016
Others expressed concern about the journalists who would be laid off imminently:
Devastated for the 700 at @AJAM losing their jobs. They took a punt only 2 yrs ago to create something special so it's sad it's come to this
— Osama Bhutta (@OsamaSBhutta) January 13, 2016
[email protected] employees, hold your head up high. You did amazing work. Be proud. Talented journalists who deserve to be scooped up in no time.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) January 13, 2016