By Tom Baxter
First, admit you have a problem: I watch a lot of cable news.
I start most days with Squawk Box and Morning Joe, and refer to Wolf and Shep as familiarly as Collies. I pay extra for a cable package that gives me BBC World, and if I could pay a little more to get France 24 and i24 (Israel), I would. I dearly wish there were a station devoted exclusively to state government news.
So the news that al Jazeera America will be going dark by the end of April wasn’t welcome, even if it wasn’t unexpected.
Things have not ended well for the U.S. version of the Qatar-based news network, launched three years ago with the pledge that it would be devoted to serious, objective news. It seems to have stepped on very shaky ground with an expose linking several big-name athletes, including Peyton Manning, to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and a couple of lawsuits have already been filed. The newsroom, stocked with veterans from other American networks, was said to be in turmoil, and a raft of top executives have turned in their resignations.
But it appears none of these problems were at the root of the channel’s demise. The always-dreaded memo to the staff said its business model was “simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”
Despite denials, the most immediate culprit appears to be what has caused so many other recent disruptions in the world at large: the oil glut. Oil-soaked Qatar is facing its first budget deficit in 15 years, just as it launches a massive capital improvements program to prepare for the 2022 World Cup games.
For all its faults, al Jazeera America managed to do some good work, such as a recent investigation into the increase in seismic activity in Oklahoma,
which is widely thought to be related to the practice of wastewater injection at oil and gas sites.
And like the conservative, San Diego-based One America News (OAN), and the Miami-based, Millenial-courting Fusion, al Jazeera America served an important function simply by reporting the news from a different perspective than the standard Washington-New York vantage point. That was one of the things that made CNN, the granddaddy of all cable news, special, although the relocation of so much on-air talent from Atlanta has diminished this.
These newer, upstart cable news operations have a lot more rough edges than CNN, Fox or MSNBC, and that’s a good thing. The large operations all show the signs of too many consultants and media gurus trying to reshape the news “product” into something more salable. And let’s not even start with the gasbags who crowd so much of the air time with their predictable opinions.
When a really big story breaks and forces the big news operations to flex their journalistic muscles, you’re better off with one of the bigs. But on a slow day, trust me, you’re better off with one of the upstarts. Today, for instance, you would have found out about the new economic policies introduced in France faster on OAN than any of its competitors.
“In one hour, One America covers about four times as many headlines as the other guys,” OAN says in a frequently broadcast promo. That means you’re often watching someone read the wires over hastily assembled stock footage, but if you’re a true news junkie you shouldn’t mind that.
OAN, which wants to position itself as an alternative to Fox, also broadcasts regular appeals to viewers to demand the big cable providers allow it access to more local markets. But that’s an uphill battle, in which the providers and the big cable operations are on the same team, sometimes literally and always essentially.
Ted Turner changed the media world overnight when he launched the first 24/7 news channel back in 1980. That world is changing again, and the future of media increasingly looks to be online, which is where al Jazeera says it will focus its efforts after the shuttering of its U.S. operation. You know about online: that’s where all the newspapers went.