Al Jazeera’s American Adventure: Q&A with Lisa Fletcher

The Connectivist talks to the face of one of Al Jazeera America's news shows about the growth of the brand against a backdrop of prejudice.

When you think of Al Jazeera, positive words may not be the first to come to mind–“anti-American” and “terror network” might still crop up. But frankly, they shouldn’t.

The news broadcasting giant gained an infamous reputation because they broadcasted videos of Osama Bin Laden’s ramblings during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There were even rumors that President George W. Bush had spoken with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the possibility of bombing the station. It’s fair to say that the Al Jazeera brand has suffered its fair share of prejudices, many of which are entirely unfair, but that hasn’t hampered its growth. Al Jazeera English launched in 2003, poaching top-notch journalists from the likes of the BBC, and grew the network’s audience beyond Arabic speakers.

Now, thanks in large to the success of Al Jazeera’s English language broadcasts (and partly to the relative failure of some American TV news networks), it was announced back in January that new offshoot network will launch in summer 2013 to focus in on the American audience: Al Jazeera America. In anticipation of the network’s impending launch day (a specific date has not yet been announced) The Connectivist spoke with Lisa Fletcher, host of The Stream, one of the high profile shows that’s making the move from Al Jazeera English to Al Jazeera America. We asked her about the growth of the Al Jazeera enterprise, what the launch of the new network means, and what we can expect from her show.

Lisa Fletcher, The Stream host

Lisa Fletcher, host of The Stream

The Stream is different from any news show I might find on Fox News, ABC News, or even another time slot on Al Jazeera, isn’t it?

Yes. It’s going to have to change a little because we’re dealing with a different audience–Americans are used to a slightly different style of news, but The Stream is unique in the way it utilizes social media. We use Facebook and Twitter as a means of communication, to discuss story ideas and to continue the conversation once the story has aired. A lot of media is still a one-way street, where the consumer gets the information and that’s it. We collaborate with our viewers.

Throughout the show people will be able to tweet in and I might read a tweet in the middle of the show and say “The Connectivist has a question for whoever our guest might be, say Joe Smith” and then read it to him live on air and say “Joe, what do you think?”

This means we’re not just limited to the guests that we have on the program. There are a lot of smart people in the world and we’ve got a lot of smart viewers and our audience is typically very ‘up’ on our topics because we tweet out during the day “this is what we’re going to be talking about.” So the audience is tweeting or Facebooking us with really relevant stuff.

The show is also heavily focused on emerging news. A lot of places cover the news after it happens. We look at trends as they’re happening, so we can discuss stories as they materialize–rather than waiting for someone else to cover it.

One of the things we do consistently is try to tell the story from the bottom up. When you see a typical story, you get the same series of experts, and a person will be spotlighted as the voice or the centerpiece of the story and he or she will be repeated on all of the networks. We do the opposite. We tell it going up. We start with the people on the ground and it gives a really different perspective. We’ve got 82 bureaus world wide, and they’re staffed with people live in those regions, who are part of those communities and understand what it’s like there. So when we tell a story we’re talking about it through the eyes of the people on the ground.

Did you take inspiration from other news shows to come up with your format?

There are plenty of journalists and news broadcasters who impress us but we’re not modeled after any of them. If you try to be someone else you’ll only ever be second best, sorry–I know that’s a cliché!

“we’re only going to allow half the commercial time compared to other networks”

So there isn’t anyone you think Al Jazeera America will be akin to? The BBC? CNN? France 24?

I’m not sure that a comparison to any of them is useful. You see a lot of the same content on those networks. You see a lot of headline news, a lot of almost ‘one liners’ and not a lot of depth. They have a lot of the same sources, you see a lot of the same spin-doctors trotted out and you see a very finite amount of time allotted to each story.

Say you’ve got really good stories on a particular day. What an outsider doesn’t know is those stories had to fight for their time on air, and the best one may not always win out. But Al Jazeera America is different in that aspect because we’re only going to allow half the commercial time compared to other networks. So it gives us more time to actually talk about the news. One of the things we like to do is explain to people why a local story matters globally and the reverse of that, why a global story matters locally. We couldn’t do that without our time luxury.

“when Whitney Houston died we did maybe three stories and everyone else was wall-to-wall for days straight”

Where were you before you were at Al Jazeera?

I was at ABC News.

And do you notice a difference between the two?

I have a lot of respect for my colleagues from ABC but I think fundamentally there’s a difference in the approach. One of my colleagues at Al Jazeera English  who also used to work at ABC recently said he knew it was radically different when Whitney Houston died and we did maybe three stories and everyone else was wall-to-wall for days straight. As a news organization we look at our priorities and we’re here to do hard news.

“we have to keep our name–anything else would have been disingenuous”

Does Al Jazeera still suffer its name?

Suffer its name?

I think people associate it with a different feeling to the BBC or CNN because of its Arabic name. Am I right? Do you know why the new network is called Al Jazeera America and not something else that might sound more homegrown, like Al Jazeera’s sports network BeIn Sport?

I don’t think we were ever going to call it anything else. We want stay true to our objective, which to provide quality and unbiased news. In doing so, we have to keep our name–anything else would have been disingenuous. We’re proud of our name, we’re proud who we are and we’re proud of our content. If some people have been misinformed about that then that just represents an opportunity for us to show them who we really are. It would be very disingenuous for us to change our name to somehow sneak in on a new audience. I don’t think that was ever on the table.

Were you nervous when you made the move from ABC to Al Jazeera?­ Because of the name?

No. It’s funny, when you talk to people in the journalism world, they are well aware of what we’re doing and they are rooting for us.

The brand is growing. Could you ever see an Al Jazeera UK, Japan, and France…?

The brand itself has always been growing, it wouldn’t surprise me.