Al Jazeera defies Saudi ban and plans knockout play for global millennial market

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Al Jazeera's Doha newsroom / Paul Keller via Flickr

Al Jazeera is planning a strategic pivot to overwhelm rivals in the millennial news market, including BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox and NowThis, by deploying the resources of its 75 international bureaux and 3,000 staff.

The Qatar-based organisation has built a global following for its youth-focused AJ+ video brand, which launched in 2014 to give a new voice to young people from the global south and quickly grew to become the third-largest news channel on Facebook.

But having run its 400-strong digital operation in strict isolation (AJ+ is headquartered in San Francisco), Al Jazeera will now bring its Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic TV newsrooms into the worlds of social media-based documentary and podcasting.

It is also set to extend its traditional news-based offering by creating softer content verticals in areas such as lifestyle and sports, which it believes will offer potential commercial opportunities, as well as widening its audience and encouraging social platforms to increase distribution.

Dr Yaser Bishr, the executive director of digital at Al Jazeera Media Network, tells The Drum that the strategy will give the 22-year-old legacy broadcaster a decisive advantage over the digital native outlets with which it competes for the millennial audience.

“In 2019 my focus on the editorial side is collaboration with TV - it is time for us to leverage the rest of the network to grow,” he says.

“You can access your people on the ground and get content that NowThis or Vox or Vice can’t get because we have so many people around the world we can get original stories from.”

He argues that Al Jazeera’s policy of running its online newsrooms apart from its TV operations for the past four years has allowed it to understand the behaviour of digital audiences, but says that “now we are on our feet” such learning can be transferred to the bigger Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic brands. “Al Jazeera has one of the largest newsgathering machines in the industry - we have 75 bureaux around the worlds. So we now have access to the reporters and could have them livestream on our digital platforms specifically for digital.”

Al Jazeera, which has a global digital reach of 300 million people, will next year make a big push for growth in the United States where it has had no presence on TV since Al Jazeera America closed in 2016.

Yaser is a former chief strategist and business development director of Lockheed Martin and has brought some of his insights from the defence and technology sectors to his media role. But these are difficult times for Al Jazeera, which is the subject of a political vendetta by Saudi Arabia and its allies who regard the Doha-based organisation as a propaganda tool for the Qatari state that funds it.

The Saudis, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, last year presented Qatar with a list of conditions it would have to meet before an economic blockade – imposed for its supposed support of terrorism – would be lifted. One of the demands was that Al Jazeera be shut down.

The media company sees the ongoing Saudi-led attack as an attempt to undermine independent journalism. Saudi intolerance for critical reporting was highlighted by the assassination of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October.

Saudi Arabia is one country in which Al Jazeera doesn't have a bureau - it was shuttered by the Saudi Ministry of Media in June last year. The network’s office in Yemen, where the Saudi military is fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, was forcibly closed in January.

Al Jazeera has been dismayed by Snapchat’s willingness last year to censor the network at the behest of the Saudis, who were alarmed that 8 million of its citizens signed up to the feed. “Snap approached us and we staffed up and devoted significant resources to creating a Snap Discover channel in the Middle East,” recalls Michael Weaver, Al Jazeera's senior vice-president of business development and growth.

“Moments later it decided, 'we are going to censor you in your biggest market’. We have to deal with curve balls that other organisations don’t have to deal with and that can hurt.”

J Carlos van Meek, a senior consultant on Al Jazeera's digital content strategy, says the censorship has demonstrated the adaptability of digital audiences. “We tacked from Snapchat to Instagram... and our Instagram is doing really well,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that we are geo-blocked in Saudi but that doesn’t keep those who are curious from consuming our content.”

Based in New York City, Zahra Rasool could be a poster child for Al Jazeera’s future. The 28-year-old Indian national is editorial lead of Contrast VR, where she heads a six-strong, all-female team that is using emerging technologies - virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 filming - for immersive storytelling. While other news outlets - the New York Times, CNN and EuroNews, for example - are developing a reputation for their innovative use of VR, Contrast’s films are different because they give a role in the production process to people living in the countries being featured.

The ‘Yemen’s Skies of Terror’ documentary was filmed by Yemeni journalists in the capital Sana’a. ‘We Shall Have Peace’, documenting the long war in South Sudan, was accompanied by a project that trained 10 South Sudanese journalists to go out and film with Samsung 360 cameras. “You are getting the stories from the people who are living and dealing with those realities,” Rasool says.

Too often, war correspondents are parachuted into conflict zones and offer a distant, “exploitative” VR experience to viewers. “It’s voyeuristic,” she says. “At the end of the day you are still wearing the headset and when you take it off you are not there.”

This bias is enhanced by the fact that most VR newsmakers do not reflect the communities they are filming. “Stories that are mostly being told (in VR) are about the developing world and people of colour - because you have got to be able to immerse yourself in somebody else’s reality,” she says. VR journalists are “mostly white men”, in line with the demographics of the tech sector.

When Contrast made ’Still Here’, a three-part immersive series on New York’s Harlem district tackling the topics of “incarceration, gentrification and Afro-Futurism,” Rasool complains that, initially, “nobody could tell me of a single black director who had worked in VR”. Contrast’s Nigerian VR film ‘Oil in Our Creeks’ mostly used a local production team. “(They were) not just fixers and drivers but co-producers and people helping to write the storyboard, the musical score and animators.” Rasool adds that “being a person of colour doesn’t give me authority to cover African people in Nigeria".

She accepts, however, that Al Jazeera viewers living in the developing world are unlikely to have access to expensive Oculus Go and Samsung Gear headsets. “The tech has still not scaled and is still very exclusive,” she admits, while the back-up option of watching a film in 360 on social media is “not the most compelling experience”.

As van Meek acknowledges, “the Contrast product is a play for the US audience, there’s no doubt about that,” and is aligned with Al Jazeera’s recent commitment to podcasting, for which it is building a dedicated team in Washington DC. He says Al Jazeera’s commitment to cultural inclusivity goes right through the organisation. "Diversity is in our DNA, it’s who we are.

“Behind the screen, in the meetings and newsrooms, you have people from all over the world. If you are going to walk into a newsroom at Al Jazeera to talk about the plight of Rohingya, there will be people from Myanmar and Bangladesh in that room.”

Yet for all that Al Jazeera executives like to talk about its great mission to be a “voice for the voiceless”, there is a growing realisation that this will not be achieved in isolation from business. For an organisation that has historically relied on the Qatari royal family for its finances, this means a significant change in culture. “It’s not that we are aggressively anti-business, it just wasn’t on the radar,” Weaver admits.

It’s imperative, he says, to “break the cycle” of digital news organisations who develop popular content formats but can find no way to monetise them. “The highway is littered with dead news organisations that had a one hit wonder and are now a small forgotten subset of the Huffington Post, 19 layers deep.”

Al Jazeera can change this, Weaver believes, by helping social platforms, from YouTube to Instagram, monetise serious video content - in return for which it will seek enhanced distribution.

Although he says editorial “rules the roost” on what films are made, Al Jazeera will do everything to help social giants see commercial value in its brands, by integrating its tech and ad formats and being GDPR compliant. “They will take our content if it’s better and they have the ability to monetise it,” he says. “Most news organisations press them for money in return - they say 'give us an increased revenue share'. We press them first for amplification and distribution.”

Al Jazeera will launch bespoke shows for Facebook Watch and Instagram TV, while making more longer-form documentaries for its YouTube channels. It will also look beyond news - a “difficult vertical to monetise” - and broaden its offering to include more advertiser-friendly territories, Weaver says.

“We are looking to create new verticals across all the platforms that will, we hope, bring a new audience that may not know what Jazeera is all about.”

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