Al-Jazeera America and the Problem With Nonprofit News

Paul Eedle, deputy launch manager for programing, speaks to the media during a tour at the new Al-Jazeera America television broadcast studio on Aug. 16, 2013, in New York.

Photo by Stan Honday/AFP/Getty Images

Al-Jazeera America is launching Tuesday with an ambitious and worthy aspiration of producing multiple hours per day of worthwhile serious news reporting anchored by familiar faces from American broadcast television and backed by a small army of reporters and bureaus. Most people get their news from television because it turns out that people really like to watch TV. But the television industry has evolved to a model that’s very heavy on talking heads (speaking of which: catch me Tuesday at noon EDT on NOW With Alex Wagner) and light on reporting. That’s too bad, and if the deep pockets of the Emirate of Qatar can create great televised news that people watch, it’ll be a boon to the world.

That said, I do have some doubts. Commercial impulses can create some unfortunate consequences in media, but they do create one very important impulse: the impulse to think long, hard, and creatively about how to get people to pay attention.

Paul Krugman did a post Sunday about how people trying to communicate ideas to the public need to recognize that nobody is obligated to pay attention to you. You need to put in the work to make your writing (or TV reports or whatever) interesting. This got a ton of attaboys from Web-native writers, but I also saw a few people mocking it as if the idea is totally trivial. But in my experience a lot of old-school journalists really do have a sentiment that it’s beneath them to care about whether people are actually reading their work. One of the things writers hate most about the transition from print to the Web is that on the Web there’s more conscious pressure to produce content that people read, whereas in print as long as someone subscribes to your newspaper or magazine, it doesn’t really matter whether they read. But while the old “it doesn’t matter if anyone reads the articles” scenario was fine for the news business, it’s terrible for journalism, since the whole point of journalism is for people to actually learn something, not just for information to be written down.

In my experience, noncommercial venues often go wrong in this way. They’re so excessively set up to avoid the failings of commercial ventures that they disdain dirtying their hands with the business of making things interesting and gaining an audience. If they do a story that they think is well-executed and important and people don’t seem to care, they pat themselves on the back and tell themselves that this just goes to show how high-minded their reporting is. Caring about audience size is for websites full of sideboob and cat GIFs.

This is why it’s so smart and important that nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Pro Publica normally partners with commercial media outlets to run their reports. This marries commercial publishing’s worth obsession with audience size with the true virtue of nonprofit media—willingness to shoulder large costs. The problem with serious investigative reporting isn’t that there’s no audience for it; it’s that it can become very expensive to produce. So expensive that for it to become a profitable investment the audience would have to be unrealistically large. An average traffic blog post that someone cooks up with 90 minutes of work is a much better investment than a monthslong investigation that gets ten times the traffic.

The hope has to be that Al-Jazeera will avoid the fate of fussy nonprofit indifference.