1 Mar 2011

Three ways Al Jazeera is changing communication

No one knows what the future of media will look like. Are tablets and devices going to save the day for paid content? Are legacy media companies doomed? Is Facebook the new newspaper? Will Twitter bring democracy to the furthest, most repressive corners of the world?

I don't know, but I will venture a guess. Al Jazeera will be there at the end.

The Qatar-owned news network is at the center of a dizzying swirl of worldwide trends right now. Just to run down a few:

1. The role of social media in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia has been widely debated. But whatever the actual influence is, Al Jazeera has been at the center of it.

A TechCrunch post detailed the surges of traffic to Al Jazeera outlets when former Egyptiain rule Hosni Mubarak resigned. And it turns out that during the heaviest surge, more than 70 percent of Al Jazeera's web traffic came as referrals from social media. And where did most of the referrals come from? Not Facebook, but Twitter. This is interesting because I've read that Facebook was the big driver for local organizers in Tunisia, not Twitter. But for Western news consumers, Twitter seems to be in the vanguard.

2. And Al Jazeera may also revolutionize the moribund US news biz. Demand is sky high for Al Jazeera English - even though it is available in only 3 million homes in the US. But people are finding it through its website, through YouTube and through set-top boxes like Roku. From the Guardian:

The Qatar-based channel's acclaimed coverage of the Egyptian crisis has been referred to as the broadcaster's "CNN moment", doing for al-Jazeera English what the first Gulf war did for CNN, pushing it to the forefront of the public's consciousness. Put simply, must-see TV. Now the challenge is to translate the plaudits into the major cable or satellite distribution deal the channel has long sought without success in the US ...

With China investing $7bn in foreign language media, we may also be witnessing the beginning of a shift, albeit slight, in the nature of global TV news and debate.
In a landscape dominated by partisan talk - see Fox News (right) and MSNBC (left-ish) - and with CNN seen as largely ineffective, Al Jazeera seems to be finding the strongest niche of all - the good reporting, hard news niche.

That this is happening in a country that demonized Al Jazeera during the Iraq War, in which its public perception was that of terrorist accomplice, is really something. It either speaks to changing American attitudes or a serious void in the American media scene.

3. There is another component to Twitter and Al Jazeera - the English one. As English becomes more and more widely spoken, it provides a larger platform for a tweet from Tunisia or a news outlet from the Middle East. I discovered this in a comment by statica from another Guardian piece:

How much more powerfully would international support for the protests in Tianamen Square, those crying for help in Rwanda or Sarajevo, have been raised if individuals around the world could have had access to specific images & statements put out by people on the inside?

I guess we're finding that out now.

Much of this is relevant to us here as communicators in Sweden. The English bit. The global platform (opportunity for people up in the far north). The role of technology and news in ordering our societies.

I wonder what more we will find out tomorrow. No matter what it is, we'll probably see it on Al Jazeera.

Nathan Hegedus

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