NEW YORK -- Al Jazeera America will shut down its operations in the United States by the end of April, the company told employees in a meeting on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera America President Kate O’Brian tearfully relayed the news to stunned colleagues, alongside CEO Al Anstey. In a memo to staff, Anstey said the decision was driven by the “fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges.”
That Anstey framed the decision as a business move was striking, since the Qatar-backed Al Jazeera Media Network seemed more motivated to expand its global influence through a U.S. cable network than it did to turn a profit, especially in the short term.
After disrupting Arab-language media in the 1990s and extending its international footprint the following decade through Al Jazeera English, the parent company spared no expense to break into the U.S. market. It could presumably afford to, with crude oil prices around $105 a barrel at the time of its August 2013 launch -- though they have since dropped to $30 a barrel.
Despite receiving plaudits for its English-language coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, including from prominent American politicians, the company struggled to get its channel on the cable dial. To some, Al Jazeera's image had been shaped during the Bush years, when officials blasted the Arab-language channel’s airing of Osama bin Laden videos in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The media company launched a campaign to get Al Jazeera English distributed on U.S. cable providers, and eventually tried buying its way in. It spent $500 million to buy Current TV, a progressive network launched by former Vice President Al Gore, and replaced it with a new U.S. channel that would eventually reach 60 million homes. Al Jazeera then built a midtown Manhattan studio and hired over 600 employees for the venture, including executives from rival broadcast and cable networks and established TV anchors.
Some inside Al Jazeera expressed concern to The Huffington Post ahead of the channel's August 2013 launch that executives were trying to imitate existing U.S. cable news channels and that Al Jazeera America wouldn't distinguish itself from the pack, as Al Jazeera English had done in its coverage of the protests across the Middle East and North Africa. "If they play it safe, they’re doomed,” Philip Seib, author of a book on Al Jazeera's global influence, said at the time. “No one’s going to pay attention to them.”
Still, Al Jazeera America won awards and admirers in the media world, and some prominent journalists lamented Wednesday's announcement.
Some journalists tweeted that the launch of Al Jazeera America took away from Al Jazeera English -- which was already an influential, highly regarded news brand accessible to U.S. consumers online prior to the cable channel's launch.
The decision to shut down Al Jazeera America comes just weeks after the channel aired what was perhaps its most-publicized report, linking Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to performance-enhancing drugs. Manning threatened to sue, while two other athletes who were mentioned in the report -- baseball stars Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman -- did file suits against the network.
Despite some Al Jazeera America stories breaking through the noisy cable news world, the channel as a whole never did. Ratings remained anemic over two years into the venture, with audiences hovering around 30,000 viewers. And Al Jazeera America’s trouble building a significant audience was compounded by allegations of sexism and anti-Semitism from former employees and claims that a "culture of fear" existed inside the network. The parent company also laid off hundreds of employees outside the U.S. last fall, a move The Guardian suggested was tied to falling oil prices.
Yet top executives expressed optimism just months ago. In November, Anstey dismissed speculation that the company might pull the plug on the U.S. channel. “There is a clear picture of where we are going to go,” he told Variety.
Anstey said in that interview that Al Jazeera America was prioritizing quality news programming, not ratings, and that “it’s going to take time to build viewership.” He said the network’s parent company had a “long-term commitment” to keep it running.
In addition to shutting down Al Jazeera America, the company announced Wednesday that it would expand existing international digital services and the digital platform AJ+, which it touted as having reached more than 2 billion online video views since launching in September 2014.
Al Jazeera America digital staffers voted to unionize in October, part of a trend for digital media workers.
An Al Jazeera America staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the network can unilaterally decide what to offer non-unionized employees with respect to severance, but must negotiate with the roughly 50 staffers represented by the NewsGuild of New York over the terms of their termination. Several hundred employees overall will lose their jobs when the network shuts down in April.
“It’s journalism, so everything’s unstable and you kind of roll with it,” the staffer said. “But there was no indication that this sort of thing was coming.”
Gabriel Arana contributed reporting.