Formerly known as Current TV, Al Jazeera America sought to remake cable TV news by making it respectable again. Instead of becoming CNN for young people, or CNN for smart people, as were its goals, it is now going under, killed by its lack of ratings and its inability to make its own brand in America, a place not really open to its Arabic origins.
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In a memo to the staff, Al Jazeera America’s chief executive, Al Anstey, said the “decision by Al Jazeera America’s board is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”
“I know the closure of AJAM will be a massive disappointment for everyone here who has worked tirelessly for our long-term future,” he continued, using the company acronym. “The decision that has been made is in no way because AJAM has done anything but a great job. Our commitment to great journalism is unrivaled.”
At the companywide meeting, Al Jazeera America staff members, some in tears, were told that the decision to shutter the network had not been unanimous. Some of the channel’s leadership argued that the network provided an important service, and continued to win awards for its coverage. But in the end, the decision was an economic one. The channel, it was felt, had fallen victim to the lack of a business model beyond continuous support from Qatar, the energy-rich country that owns Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera America’s real problem, however, was that the audience it sought—young, willing to accept differing worldviews beyond the partisan Fox News and MSNBC and the lowest-common-denominator “journalism” of CNN—tends to get its news and watch video online. Young, media-savvy people don’t wait for the news to come to them on TV, they look to find it themselves online, where companies like Vice Media have been more successful in bringing quality content right to them. Al Jazeera America—beyond its branding problem—had potential, as did its predecessor, Current, but both failed because they wanted to do something new, but wound up just doing something very, very old.