It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Al Jazeera America arrived on U.S. cable TV in 2013 with a mission. “Two and a half years ago we launched with a simple goal–to provide reliable, trusted information to audiences across the United States,” write AJAM chief executive Al Anstey and president Kate O’Brian in a memo to staff Tuesday morning. “Throughout our short history we have held true to this mission.”
Over the summer of 2013, Al Jazeera America did what it would struggle to do after its launch: create buzz. The network hired Ali Velshi, John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora and Soledad O’Brien and filled bureaus across the country, and offices–described at the time as “temporary”–on West 34th Street in Manhattan, where show teams, control rooms and executive suites were filled with network-experienced talent ready to make history.
Writing at The Daily Beast ahead of AJAM’s launch, Christopher Dickey summed up what many in American television were thinking as they watched the furious push to bring a new cable news network to life in a very crowded marketplace:
I’ve been following the ups and downs of Al Jazeera America all year, talking to staffers in the States, Europe, and the Middle East, and it’s still a good guess its pockets are too deep for it to fail, at least in the short term—or at least not before it launches. It will go on the air sometime in the not-too-dim future. And it will bring a lot of fresh energy as well as controversy to the news scene in the world’s most important television market. It could transform the way we see news and the way we think about it. But, then again, it could be a disaster in almost every sense of the word.
Failure, of course, was not a word being used on West 34th Street.
“The most important, the leading measure, is the impact Al Jazeera America will have on our audience,” said interim chief executive Ehab Al Shihabi in an August, 2013 interview with TVNewser. “We will do the impact, and we will let the audience chase us. We will never change the vision or the mission.”
The mission ultimately earned Al Jazeera America awards and respect, but few viewers willing to “chase” the network. After two months, the network averaged just 13,000 total viewers. In the key demo, A25-54, the numbers were bleak: an average of just 5,000 viewers.
Many pointed fingers at the man in charge.
Described at launch as an “interim” chief executive, Al Shihabi had remained in the position. Last year, he was finally replaced by Anstey, a CBS News veteran. At the time, AJAM’s newsroom was swirling with rumors, rocked by high-profile departures, and a sense from insiders that Al Shihabi’s inexperience had hurt the network. Some complained he simply didn’t “understand journalism.”
The Al Jazeera name, considered by many to be a stumbling block in the search for American news viewers, was further tarnished by accusations raised in a $15 million lawsuit by a former AJAM employee in New York, who described a hostile work environment and claimed a manager made “discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks.”
After eight months on the air, there were layoffs. “We are continuing to build a sustainable and high-performing news organization in the tradition of the Al Jazeera Media Network,” wrote O’Brian at the time. “And it all starts and ends with the journalism. Our recent awards are a testimony to the high level of work Al Jazeera America is producing, day in and day out.”
At one point, O’Brian talked about a vision for AJAM that would one day make it the number one news network in America. In a year-end note to staff–written after just four months on the air–O’Brian thanked her team for a launch that seemed destined for success. “Your hard work and dedication to excellence has created a foundation for success that will be the envy of the industry.”
There were fights over cable carriage and scheduling changes, and a steady undersupply of advertiser support. And in January, Al Jazeera conceded it wasn’t working. The decision was certainly driven in part by losses in the company’s corporate home of Doha, where dropping oil prices made it far harder to justify supporting AJAM. “While Al Jazeera America built a loyal audience across the US and increasingly was recognized 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,” said a statement announcing the shutdown.
Writing on Facebook Tuesday morning, Ali Velshi looked beyond the business realities–to the stories. “It’s our last day on air. Thanks for supporting us in giving voice to the voiceless and providing in-depth, contextualized reporting.”
Al Jazeera America will fill the day with reflections on the reporting Velshi mentioned, and how the original mission of making a difference and covering those otherwise unreported stories was, day-in and day-out, achieved.
“We all know good journalism is critical. It ensures information is reliable, and can be trusted,” write Anstey and O’Brian in their last day memo to staff. “Good journalism doesn’t mean opinion or spin. It is a responsibility which every media organization should carry with determination and resolve. We are proud to have done so since our first to our final moment on air.”