What does Al Jazeera America see in the Northwest?
by Olivia Weitz
Most of the pins on Al Jazeera America correspondent Allen Schauffler’s map are near the Seattle-area, but there are pins all over the Pacific Northwest, from Boise, Idaho to Ashland, Oregon. Some even extend up into Montana and Canada.
Each one represents a story Schauffler, as head of the Seattle bureau, plans to cover. As his hands glide over the territory, pointing out pins and verbally sketching out each story, his speech quickens, as if he doesn’t want to waste any time getting to the task at hand — a substantial one.
He, along with producer Kristen Fraser and photographer and editor Jose Cedeno, are responsible for telling the stories of the entire Pacific Northwest and a couple of Canadian provinces for Al Jazeera America, a brand new cable news network. And they haven’t even met their bosses yet.
Al Jazeera America's Allen Schauffler in his Lake Union-side office.
Launched in August 2013 by the Qatari-based Al Jazeera media network, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) expands the company's 70 international bureaus to include a dozen more within the U.S. The new network still offers the brand’s hallmark, in-depth news, lifestyle and investigative journalism, but in this case it's targeted specifically for an American audience.
AJAM broadcasts both stories from its U.S. bureaus and from other bureaus around the world. Sometimes, the network will broadcast stories from its U.S. bureaus internationally, through Al Jazeera English. Recently, a Seattle-area story about orcas and tidal energy was distributed to over 100 countries through Al Jazeera English.
The new network’s executives (whom Schauffler has so far met only over email and phone) plan to take a different approach than other U.S.-based media companies. They have deliberately placed several of their 12 bureaus in places like Detroit, Nashville and New Orleans; cities that don’t yet have strong media representation.
In AJAM corporate-speak, they want to tell stories that are “closer to the people at the heart of the news.”
The network now has one of the largest newsgathering capabilities in American media, but their TV audience has yet to respond in large numbers. Since AJAM replaced Al Gore’s cable channel, Current TV, viewership has dropped by more than half.
In December 2013, Buzzfeed and the New York Post reported that, in the five months since Al Jazeera America’s launch, only 13,000 people tuned in during an average minute. That might sound like a lot, but in TV-land it’s too low even to be reported by popular ratings agency, Nielsen.
Jocelyn Austin, Al Jazeera America’s Director of Publicity, says they don’t have Seattle-specific ratings or any way of comparing the network’s popularity here with other cities or regions.
Still, Schauffler sees unique promise in the stories and headlines of the greater northwest; stories he believes will eventually attract more of a TV audience. “This area has a remarkable and vibrant business community. Microsoft and Amazon in Washington, Intel in Portland, Micron in Boise are just a few of the high-tech headliners," Schauffler explained in his first Al Jazeera post.
“The place is buzzing with international trade and major agricultural operations. We are surrounded by tremendous natural beauty and expansive wild lands that breed a host of environmental concerns and controversies.”
Since August, the news of the Seattle-area has kept the bureau especially busy: Marijuana legalization, the $15 minimum wage push and Socialist Kshama Sawant’s city council campaign have dominated coverage and Schauffler believes that the Northwest’s leadership in these areas will continue to “raise the volume of these kinds of conversations.”
The network itself isn’t discouraged either — at least not outwardly. In a year-end note to Al Jazeera America employees, network President Kate O’Brian outlined plans to expand existing programs, launch new documentaries and shows and continue marketing efforts.
The network is also expanding its availability — adding Time Warner to its list of providers, a move that will make it available in about 10 million more homes.
All of these things are a part of O’Brian’s larger vision: With continued expansion and more hard work, she told employees, Al Jazeera America will one day be the “envy of the industry,” America’s number one news division.
Schauffler is just glad to be working with an ambitious boss. (Whom he hopes to finally meet on his upcoming New York trip) “I'm glad that she's looking at it, taking that kind of view,” he says. “That's encouraging.” Still, he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the network’s future. Just curious.
As far as the Seattle bureau goes, Schauffler wants to focus on putting more pins on the map. “I’d like to see us get way out in the Boondocks in all of the states where we have pins.”
It’s still a startup, he explains, and his team is just getting started