Fresh off the wild success of Internet-fueled Middle-East revolution stories, Al Jazeera English today is launching the online component to its forthcoming social media-centered news program, The Stream. It's the most aggressive integration of social media into a live news program to date. And Al Jazeera says it wants to capture a new generation of cable "cord cutters," push the limits of so-called "citizen journalism," and inch into American media territory.
A social storytelling service powers the editorially curated content, which is complimented by community commenting before, during, and after the anchored news show. It's scheduled to start airing May 2nd.
A Community Webshow
"Most TV creates a show and then have a website as an addendum," says newly minted co-host Derrick Ashong. And other news orgs such as NPR with its Twitter correspondent Andy Carvin, have incorporated curated reporting from the crowd. But "The concept of The Stream is actually a web community that has its own daily television show on AJ," Ashong says. The co-host's own politically charged viral Youtube video catapulted his career into radio. He imagines The Stream as a 24-hour news show with a 30-minute anchored broadcast component (aired Monday through Thursday). After the broadcast ends, there will be will be a "seamless transition into the dialog that's already going on."
News is constructed through Storify, a social media curation platform that interlaces freeze frames of original sources and videos with original analysis. The screen capture below is from a beta version of the website and is about an imprisoned blogger.
Though the live broadcast airs three separate times throughout the day, Ashong is hopeful that the staff can make the interactive portion sufficiently distinct so that the re-air experience is never actually a simple duplicate.
Additionally, The Stream's online community doubles as a self-selected focus group, alerting staff to editorial oversights and signaling new trends "When we come to do an editorial meeting the following day, we may say 'Hey, there was a lot traction around this story, but people raised x, y, and z questions that they want more answers to."
The Stream hungers for online conversations and thus gives preference to stories of activism and genuine emotion. "It might be that everyone is tweeting about the Grammy's," Ashong says, but its probably not a "passionate" discussion. He's aiming for stories that lend themselves to "substantive and robust online discourse." For many news websites, pop culture stories, from the iPad 2 to Justin Bieber, are an important traffic driver, and The Stream will be challenged to find a balance between viewership and "substance."
However, Ashong believes professional curation can help the show avoid the stigma of amateurism attached to the broadcast use of social media—i.e. avoid being made fun of by Jon Stewart (start at 2:27).
The Cord Cutters Cometh
"Cord cutters," those who have ditched their cable subscription, have sent broadcasters scrambling to prepare for a world with less traditional television programming. Some, such as CNN, are propping up the traditional models with device-agnostic streaming of their regular content. "If programming does not respond to the new, more democratic of ways of gathering and analyzing information, then there's a risk audiences will go elsewhere," Al Jazeera's director of programming, Paul Eedle, tells Fast Company.
Eedle sees The Stream as a step toward tackling the unknown future of news, but he admits no one has figured out the full recipe for success. Experimentation is the only way to find it. And Eedle has been dreaming of this opportunity for over a decade and just now feels there's a critical mass. Prior to Al Jazeera, Eedle worked on Out There News, where he began experimenting with online reactions during a British oil strike in the late 90s. Back then, a few hundred comments on an AOL message board was a revolutionary achievement.
"Through social media, you can have not 55, but 5,500 or even, on occasion, 55,000 eyes and ears on the ground," he says.
Emboldened by Hillary Clinton's flattering congressional testimony that Al Jazeera is "real news," Al Jazeera is pushing to break into the American mainstream. It should be no surprise, then, why The Steam is hosted in Washington D.C. with two American anchors. "Of course we're looking to get coverage in the US," says executive producer of programming in DC, James Wright.
Both Wright and Eedle walk lightly around why Al Jazeera is not yet accessible through a cable provider. A factor is the lingering Bush administration's displeasure with the news station that heightened fear among cable companies that Al Jazeera was a politically and culturally risky partnership and thus prolonged years of what Al Jazeera considers de facto censorship. Now with a stark change in tone, Al Jazeera's chiefs are optimistic that the cable companies will see their channel as a valuable station, and they're pushing ahead with or without the cable providers.
Additionally, Al Jazeera considers America a hub of innovation. Ashong and other staff members have strong ties to the new media industry, something they consider crucial for a show that sits on the shoulders of breaking technology trends.
Both Wright and Eedle wanted it to be noted that The Stream will maintain a strong international news focus and is considering plans for satellite outlets around the world should the viewership warrant expansion.
More than anything, The Stream is a place to bring in fresh faces. Young, new media-savvy voices, such as Azita Ardakani of Love Social, are deliberately favored as contributors instead older experts. Prominent activists and bloggers will be given a spotlight; insightful commenters will hold sway over the direction of news. Whether it will work is anyone's guess. But, as Wright says, Al Jazeera is determined for The Stream to facilitate "handing over the airwaves to a younger generation."