Not Going Quietly: Al Jazeera America

Chris Lehmann, of the soon to be shuttered Al Jazeera America Website and news channel, is going out with a bang and calls the brave new world of content marketing as he sees it. And what he sees sure isn’t journalism. Worth reading if this is your gig.


“The polite euphemism for such rampant self-prostitution in our brave new digital media world is “sponsored content” — i.e., writing that’s made to look, feel and read like actual journalism while promoting a paid-for commercial agenda.”

There were border skirmishes between editorial and advertising in the old days (meaning my own and my parents’ generation as newspaper people). But the importance of the division was honored. In part, as Ira Basen points out, to get away from the frankly commercial world of 19th century journalism which was often indistinguishable from political positions and commercial interests. There was a specific meaning and category denoted by the subhead “An Independent Newspaper” that some carried.

Today I suppose there really isn’t an independent newspaper to be found that is not scared for its life, and what constitutes an “independent news” digital property is a hard nut to crack. Lehmann makes a good case that VOX it isn’t, and BuzzFeed never pretended to be. In fact their business genius seems to be premised on the foundation that there is no difference between the data that drives advertising and the data that drives content. Get them both aligned and  voila! you make money.

Journalists are glum about this, but of course it could be that these developments just chase journalism elsewhere, and atomize it (into blogs for instance, serious ones, not mine, I hasten to add). Perhaps that’s not a bad outcome in some ways, but does raise  questions. Investigative journalism can require a costly collective effort–if nothing else technically and it other ways too. Individual bloggers do get some big wins, but expecting a whole generation of Upton Sinclairs to emerge on WordPress is a shaky (but not impossible) proposition.

More intractable is the problem of editing. Newspaper editorial desks made up of reporters and editors imposed a culture of accountability and collaborative effort (possibly combative, but respected). Somebody else always read and edited what a reporter wrote (at good papers, no story got in, however trivial, if it hadn’t been vetted by three pairs of eyes, one of whom was a often socially deficient copy editor with a brain like a computer for AP Style and native distrust of writers’ orthographic waywardness.

This meant content was checked, questions were asked, fairness and newsworthiness debated, not always and not necessarily to the best conclusion, but there was a mechanism. This also built some time and rhythm into the system. There was time to think about what you were doing. Not just a blinking “publish” button, or the fear that Twitter was running away with your story, or live streaming it.

Again, there are modern ways to respond to the change in editing, and effective approaches may well emerge. It all seems pretty tough, though: crowd sourced editing and sourcing, an understanding of what drafts and breaking news look like in this 24/7 digital world all have a pretty messy profile right now, and would be good to remember what of the old system was worth keeping, while acknowledging that there is no money to pay for it in its epic luxury and size any more. I suppose a copy desk for Tweets sounds like a comedy skit, but putting a little more thinking in the process would not be amiss.


The Massachusetts Spy, a colonial paper, pretty bloggy by modern standards

4 Replies to “Not Going Quietly: Al Jazeera America”

  1. In a way, I’m enjoying the free flowing populism in today’s “media”, where rules are bent, and hidden corporate agendas are replaced by more obvious personal ones. Too bad about Al Jazeera though, there is a place for an eastern model for balance.

    1. I agree…the thousand flowers blooming of lots of voices are great. But I don’t think the corporate agendas are replaced, Google and FB’s corporate agendas are no better than Coke or GMs were a couple of generations ago, and arguably even more ubiquitous. You could not drink Coke and not buy a car. If you want a decent job, you probably can’t get around encountering Google, and it is mostly definitely a media company as much as it is a search company, it owns the biggest television network in the history of humanity and it curates some vast amount of news. And it’s relationship with sponsored content a la VOX? Who can tell?

  2. There’s stuff to think about in the article, for sure, and “sponsored content” is interesting but also lots just lots of ad hominem assertions (so-and-so is a hack, so-and-so a paid shill, so-and-so is disingenuous) — often people, from what I can tell, the author just disagrees with (e.g. Vox’s criticism of Bernie Sanders). Also the Commerce Editor position seems like something Vox’s corporate overlords dreamt up; I’m curious how it gets integrated into newsrooms. I assume the outrage is because the position is called “Editor”; if it was just “Sales Guy” and the description was the same, I presume no one would care.

    1. And there is also the issue that Al Jazeera America, whatever its journalistic integrity, and I thought AJA was solid in my occasional reading of it, was nonetheless partially funded by the government in Doha, which I know cast a shadow over it for at least one of my investigative journalist friends.

      I get the evils of content marketing/sponsored content primrose path for journalistic coverage. The problem is a technical one, however, in the old days you could bundle all kinds of content embedded with advertising and people could parse it all, picking relevant things to their interest (and possibly feeling guilty about not reading the the paper as fully as one might). You could only need the classifieds once a year, and that did not keep them from being a cash cow. Attention was aggregated, money was made, and the newspaper could use the subsidy as it wished/strategized, in service of any ideal it wanted.

      Now everything is atomized, and there is no way for search and discovery to deliver that subsidy (particularly since the content landscape is vastly more dimensional space). Content marketing provides a way of defining ROI, it’s maybe a crappy way, and presents seriously compromises journalistically, but if you aren’t going to use it, and want to run a publication as more than a thought experiment, what do you do?

      Once you have suited up (by buying an appropriate platform) for the data rat race, it’s not so easy to retire from the field.

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