Nearly a year ago I was contacted not only by Crain's New York but also MediaPost to comment on the wisdom of the UK newspaper The Guardian opening an office and reporting news in the United States. I suppose the reporters both ended up contacting me as I was an American who had worked in the UK and would know what The Guardian was and what it might mean for American news outlets.
I was asked if I thought The Guardian could survive, given that being a news owner and outlet in the US seems to be a losing proposition -- newspapers are down across the board, CNN will soon need triage and yet another makeover, MSNBC is growing, but only anemically, and even the hysterics and antics at Fox seemed to be wearing thin as their ratings have been lower in the past year.
My answer then was that it would depend on three things: 1) American's accepting an outside brand and 2) if news reporting was still valued by the Americans (which I believe there is an underserved subsegment of the population who do so check that one off) 3) Reporting news that is local and is "American" i.e. of immediate value to US consumers.
As if queued, The Guardian a few weeks later broke the news of the Edward Snowden leaks and secured the first interview with him. This was a story that at one time one would have expected from NY Times or The Washington Post, but The Guardian not only broke the story but was far-and-away providing faster and better information than any other news organization
Another foreign reporting outlet Al Jazeera has done the same. While I was skeptical of their arrival on American shores -- not because as many Americans believe that they are the mouthpiece of Al Queda or "Muslims" -- but because I was skeptical that they would report US and local news with any degree of proficiency. I also believed that their brand name would hurt them in the US because of the association of the brand with the Middle East.
Al Jazeera has more than addressed my first skepticism. There are prodigious news organization and they cover US news in a manner that seemed to be from a by-gone error of reporting from US news outlets, i.e. they actually have reporters where ever there is news. As an example here are their headlines from their US reporting teams right now:
- As coal fades in West Virginia, drugs fill the void
- Rescuers comb debris in Washington: More dead found and toll expected to increase
- Homeless in America: An in-depth special coverage
- Jimmy Carter urges continued forcefulness on Ukraine
Recently when a gas main broke and exploded in Harlem, Al Jazeera's coverage was more in-depth and succinct (AJ doesn't spend time showing the same pictures or footage with endless commentary about that one piece of content) than any of the American networks, newspapers and even New York's own 24 hour news channel NY1.
It seems that anywhere there is news happening Al Jazeera is there, not only in the US but everywhere. As an example, they have four journalists currently in prison in Iran for covering the elections there, they had a reporter at the March Madness games, and more recently they were the only news channel to have reporters physically on the planes that were searching for the wreckage of Flight 370.
As American news outlets have reduced their staff and turned more toward soft news and opinion or endless rounds of "experts" pontificating on and about the latest snippet of news. They have created a vacuum in the market for real factual news that is now being filled by foreign news outlets,.
So will they survive and thrive in the US? The Guardian, yes.
Al Jazeera? I'm not sure. They undoubtedly have superior reporting to any television news organization and had they not been suffering under their brand name I think they would have largely changed the landscape in news media already. Time will tell if enough people will switch the channel to make them more relevant. Note to Al Jazeera if you are looking for help with your branding, just click "contact" on our site's header above, we already have some ideas. :)
Whatever the case, both have the luxury of time and ability to focus on the news and not popular trends as they stand outside of the economic vice grip news outlets are in now: Al Jazeera is partially funded by the government of Qatar and The Guardian is closely held and largely funded by a trust, and as a formerly leftist newspaper, expectations of wealthy grandeur are not part of why one comes to work at The Guardian.
The Americans have their work cut out for them.
CP, 26 March 2014