Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Al Jazeera America to Shut Down
5:04 p.m. EST January 13, 2016

The cable news outlet will end its American operation after three years.

Al Jazeera America, the American cable news outlet owned by Qatar-based Al Jazeera, plans to shut down less than three years after its much-ballyhooed launch, unable to overcome low ratings, operational problems and a lack of advertisers.

The cable news network will be phased out by April 30, according to a memo that was emailed to staffers Wednesday.

Al Jazeera Media Network, which is funded by the government of Qatar, launched the U.S.-based network in August, 2013 after buying Current TV, the cable news channel co-founded by Al Gore, for about $500 million earlier in the year.

The decision to go out of business was “driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace,” AJAM CEO Al Anstey was quoted as saying in an AJAM report.

“I know the closure of AJAM will be a massive disappointment for everyone here who has worked tirelessly for our long-term future,” Anstey wrote in an email to staffers.

"The wind down of Al Jazeera America is not expected to have any impact on other businesses or operations of the network," wrote Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, in the note. Al Jazeera Media Network plans to expand its "international digital services to broaden its multi-platform presence in the United States," Souag wrote.

As Al Jazeera prepared to launch in 2013, it hired several well-known journalists --  Ali Velshi, Joie Chen and Mike Viqueira, to name a few - and vowed that its deep pockets would sustain the operations despite sluggish ratings that were expected at the outset. AJAM, as the U.S. operation came to be known, promised to spend money for investigative and fact-based journalism to distinguish itself from more entrenched competitors.

While some hoped Al Jazeera's international origins and focus would lead the American offshoot to provide broaden coverage of the Middle East and overseas events, AJAM sought to focus on domestic news in hopes of expanding its influence in the U.S. But critics were vocal from day one, lambasting Al Jazeera for buying its way into the U.S. to spread what they saw as its anti-Western and anti-Semitic bias. Al Jazeera officials have denied consistently that the company was anti-Western, saying that viewers would change their minds if they gave the upstart operation a fair shot.

Some cable distributors initially refused to carry the network after Current TV's operation was superseded by AJAM. After lawsuits, AJAM expanded its reach to about 55 million homes in the U.S. But ratings failed to grow. AJAM never disclosed ratings data, but industry analysts speculated that it never broke five digits.

Management problems and labor issues also plagued its New York headquarters and other bureaus. In May, Al Jazeera fired AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi soon after The New York Times published a story that chronicled "a deep dysfunction" in management and "the culture of fear" engendered by his leadership. AJAM also was hit with a lawsuit from a former employee alleging sexism and anti-Semitism.

Anstey, an Al Jazeera veteran, replaced Al Shihabi and promised more transparency. But beyond the problems he inherited, Anstey also has had to deal with efforts by digital staffers to obtain collective bargaining rights. In October, about 50 journalists voted to unionize in the face of opposition from management.

Despite the turmoil, AJAM won some awards for investigative journalism. Late last year, it produced a documentary that linked Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to human growth hormone. As the report encountered criticism for its sourcing, the reporters who worked on the story insisted that its main premise -- mainly that growth hormone was sent to Manning's wife in Florida -- is true. Manning, one of the most respected and popular NFL football players, hasn't ruled out suing AJAM.

Jokes about Manning's hand in AJAM's demise surfaced quickly on Twitter Wednesday. "Al Jazeera is shutting down," a tweet read, accompanied by a reference to the jingle of Nationwide, an insurance company whose ad spokesman is Manning.

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