Al Jazeera opening Seattle bureau, with a familiar face
Al Jazeera America launches Aug. 20 as a cable news channel, including a Seattle bureau with former KING5 reporter and anchor Allen Schauffler. Will the Qatar network find it difficult to attract viewers?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Launches: Aug. 20 with 24-hour news programming
U.S. bureaus: Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C.
Staff: More than 700 people will be hired.
Seattle bureau: Three people, including former KING5 reporter and anchor Allen Schauffler
Starting Aug. 20, you’ll have to do a deep cable search to find Allen Schauffler, the 20-year veteran who just left his job as reporter and anchor at KING-TV.
On Comcast in this state, he’ll be all the way up at Channel 125, in Jewelry Television and Disney Junior territory.
Schauffler now is the Seattle correspondent for Al Jazeera America. Seattle is one of 12 cities in the U.S. where the channel has opened bureaus.
It is part of the Al Jazeera Media Network, the Qatar-based international conglomerate.
That’d be Qatar, as in the small country, oil- and gas-rich, bordering Saudi Arabia that the CIA World Factbook says has “the world’s highest per capita income,” a very nice $103,900 last year.
Schauffler says he knows he’ll have his work cut out, especially when he’s out there in wheat country for a story and introduces himself with a business card with the Arabic name and logo (it means “the island,” referring to the geography of the Arabian Peninsula).
He says, “It’s going to be interesting. We’re not running from the name.”
The Al Jazeera media empire already has the Al Jazeera English channel that broadcasts to some 260 million households worldwide. It has 70 bureaus around the world. But that channel reaches few in the United States.
So the privately held company owned by the emir of Qatar paid a reported half-billion dollars for Al Gore’s news channel, Current TV, that few watched.
In January 2012, The New York Times reported that during coverage of the Iowa caucuses, there were only 47,000 viewers at any given time for Current TV.
But what Gore’s channel had was distribution to some 50 million of the 100 million households in this country with cable TV, even if they weren’t tuning in. That gave Al Jazeera instant access — at least to those viewers with bigger cable packages.
After that, Al Jazeera America was quickly formed, and it went on a hiring spree.
It says it plans to have a U.S. staff of more than 700, welcome news in a business in which layoffs have become common.
Five weeks ago, says Schauffler, “My agent told me there was an opportunity that sounded fascinating.
“I went back to New York and interviewed with them and got a better idea of what they’re going to be about.”
He says he’s quite aware that Al Jazeera, “in some people’s minds, has a certain unpleasant history.”
This is the channel that Donald Rumsfeld, while secretary of defense, in 2005 said promoted terrorism by airing beheadings and other attacks. Al Jazeera denied it had an anti-American bias and said it reported the news accurately.
In recent years, the network has won numerous journalism awards.
Schauffler says he liked what he heard from the Al Jazeera executives.
“We’re looking for interesting stories that can help illuminate issues that interest the entire country, and go to big breaking news when it happens,” he says.
From what the network is releasing about its content, it certainly sounds mainstream — a prime-time news hour, a magazine, an investigative unit and a current-affairs talk show.
Schauffler says that he’s going to have more time to tell stories than the minute-and-a-half-long stories that he was used to doing at KING5.
“It’s a 24-hour news network, so we’ll have a lot of news space to fill,” he says.
And, initially, says Schauffler, the network will be running eight minutes of commercials an hour instead of the more common 14 to 16 minutes. With deep pockets, you can do that.
At the Seattle bureau, it’ll be Schauffler, a photographer and field producer.
“I was ready for something new,” he says. “It’ll be fascinating to be part of this.”
Among stories they’re already working on is how soccer has taken hold in Seattle and the economic impact here of the Seattle Opera’s renowned production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle that attracts a vast audience.
Will those kinds of stories be enough to attract a reasonable-sized piece of the fragmented cable-news audience?
Says Merrill Brown, the founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com and now director of the School of Communications and Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey, “What is their distinction going to be in the marketplace, especially in a world in which the seriousness of CNN finds it hard to build an audience? We don’t flock to CNN with the speed that we used to. It’s all on our phones or desktops or whatever.”
Brown says that with 70 bureaus around the world — and now 12 in the U.S. — Al Jazeera “is well equipped to do breaking news around the world. That would seem to be a competitive advantage.”
He says that after a January nightclub fire in Brazil that killed more than 200 people, Al Jazeera “was the only international news service there,” broadcasting “in fairly real time.”
He doesn’t think Al Jazeera’s Arabic logo or name will matter that much to Americans.
“That feels pretty ancient,” says Brown. “And it might be an asset in Detroit and a number of places where there are a lot of Arab Americans.”
If you’re willing to pay the money (starting at $85 a month), in Western Washington you can get more than 400 channels of Comcast. On Aug. 20, in that Channel 125 slot, Al Jazeera America will try to find a way to cut through that clutter.
Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com