Al-Jazeera reaches multiple audiences

Al-Jazeera is the fifth most recognised brand in the world and Mohamed Nanabhay, head of new media, plans to make it even better known by connecting with a range of new audiences. The only other better-known global brands are Apple, Google, Ikea and Starbucks.

In a world of information overload with thousands of competing television channels, Nanabhay’s brief is to get Al-Jazeera’s content to multiple audiences, he told a capacity audience at the XMediaLab conference in Melbourne. “My job is to produce content that appeals to the next generation of consumers.”

Audiences have embraced the notion that sharing is cool, along the way creating new business models. The line between professional and amateur content is blurring and traditional media face competition from scores of niche players, Nanabhay says.

“It is the age of do-it-yourself television.” Nanabhay cited vidding and machinima as examples in a wide spectrum of DIY TV. Vidding occurs when fans create music videos by combining clips from their favourite TV shows, anime series, movies or DVDs. The results are also known as songvids or fanvids. Machinima arose out of online games. Gamers apply traditional film-making techniques to a virtual environment, using powerful computers to create 3D animations to tell stories.

Samples can be found at Nanabhay’s blog. These new media forms created many challenges, including the issues of licensing and copyright, which “would not be fixed for a long time”.

DIY TV on platforms like YouTube will “slowly chip away” at Al-Jazeera’s audience unless the broadcaster finds ways to embrace audience-generated content, Nanabhay says. Mainstream media like Al-Jazeera need to find ways to remain relevant in an environment of multiple voices.

Al-Jazeera manages change by embracing audience-generated content, and stationing people in “hotspot” areas of the world. It also employs technology to get news to its audiences. “We have deep knowledge of our region, and we station people in places where news occurs. We have a lot of people in Africa because it is a place where things are happening.”

Al-Jazeera has 62 news bureaus around the world, and more than 2000 staff. It has focused on technology and innovation. For example, it was the first cable news channel in the world to broadcast in high definition.

The experiences of two Al-Jazeera reporters, Baiba Ould Mhadi and May Ying Welsh, illustrate the use of technology to get news from isolated regions. As part of a special series the reporters travelled across Mali and Niger in the Sahara desert to cover a conflict involving uranium, the environment and the Tuareg, the nomadic animal herders who live in the Sahara. “They are among the world’s poorest people,” Nanabhay said. Yet their region contains some of the world’s biggest uranium deposits.

The reporters carried Nokia N95 mobile phones. They took high-quality images that were also geo-tagged, using the phone’s GPS function. This provided the exact location of where the shot was taken, which allowed Al-Jazeera’s new media team to plot the route of the reporters’ journey through the Sahara on an interactive map.

Audiences can follow the reporters into the heart of the conflict via Google Maps mash-ups. “The project was initiated by Al-Jazeera Labs to demonstrate some of the innovations coming out of our new media group,” Nanabhay said. “Keep in mind, though, that some of these tools are still in development.”

Nanabhay’s team is also looking at the potential of Twitter for newsgathering and the iPhone for distribution of news. Twitter software allows people to blog via their mobile phone, but with a limit of 140 characters for each post.

Examples of the Sahara photographs and the mash-up of the reporters’ journey can be found here.

* Published in The Age August 2008 after interview with Nanabhay.

Categories: Not home, television

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