Al Jazeera exec stresses need for high quality, in-depth journalism with USC Annenberg faculty

Ehab Al Shihabi, interim CEO at Al Jazeera America, joined fellows of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) and other USC Annenberg faculty members on Monday April 28 for a salon-style discussion. The meet-and-greet set the stage for possible collaborations between Al Jazeera America and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“I just want to say what a privilege it is for us at the Annenberg School to have this chance to just have a brainstorming session,” said CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan.

“Thank you very much for having us here,” said Al Shihabi. “I would love to partner with a university like [yours] on how to build a new model of business for the news that will allow for quality journalism.”

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Attendees included CCLP distinguished fellow Warren Bennis; faculty fellow Gordon Stables; senior fellows Narda Zacchino and Richard Reeves; Jay Wang, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy; Gabriel Kahn, director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab‘s Future of Journalism project; Jeremy Rosenberg, assistant dean of public affairs and special events at USC Annenberg; and Rob Asghar, a fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

“Our mission really is to report it as it is,” said Al Shihabi as he gave an overview of Al Jazeera’s history and business model. The Al Jazeera Media Network has over 70 news bureaus around the world, with 12 in the United States. Al Shihabi said that when he came to the US in June 2012, his original mission “was to study the market and launch Al Jazeera EspaƱol.” Instead, he discovered that the US had an untapped demographic: a sophisticated audience that wants detailed, long-form journalism.

Through Al Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV, Al Jazeera America’s reach has grown from 4 million to 38 million households. Their goal for next year is to reach 75 million households. Asked by Cowan to describe the revenue model, Al Shihabi said that Al Jazeera America is exploring syndication revenue, especially for its documentaries. He also noted that beIN Sports, Al Jazeera’s network of sports channels, will make more profit for the company than their news channels. Regarding the challenge of how to fund investigative journalism, Al Shihabi said there’s still a lot to learn. “I tried to find many, many books about quality of journalism and balancing the business,” he said. “Doesn’t exist.”

Judy Muller, an acclaimed journalist and professor at USC Annenberg, asked about the perceptions of Al Jazeera America’s brand: “What do you do to get people past this prejudice? The name is foreign and they don’t trust it.”

Al Shihabi said that based on surveys, 75% of Americans who watch Al Jazeera have a positive view of the network, while most Americans who don’t watch the network still have a negative view. “It’s about myth. It’s not about reality,” he said, agreeing that changing Americans’ perception of the Al Jazeera brand “is an extensive effort.”

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Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC US-China Institute, asked why Al Jazeera America was created instead of focusing on the international Al Jazeera English channel. “Our friends at CCTV [China Central Television] are trying to learn from Al Jazeera… On the China side, they haven’t had near the success,” noted Dube.

“The audience of Al Jazeera America is different than the audience of Al Jazeera English,” said Al Shihabi. “We cover a lot of uncovered stories in the US.”

Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, asked Al Shihabi if they offer paid internships. “We are very much committed to the internship program,” said Al Shihabi. “Al Jazeera is not just a news channel but also a training hub.”

At the end of the discussion, Cowan encouraged everyone to take a few moments to speak individually and exchange cards. “I’m sure this won’t be our last conversation,” said Cowan. Internship programs and documentary screenings were the first ideas to be suggested for possible collaborations between USC Annenberg and Al Jazeera America, with many more ideas to come.