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Will Al Jazeera America attract Millennial viewers?

3:09 PM, Aug 20, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- Al Jazeera's U.S.-based outlet Al Jazeera America launched Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET, and if it turns out anything like what its executives promise, it can't debut soon enough for some young people.

"It's one of the most intelligent news agencies in the world today," says University of Vermont junior Ben Lindstrom-Ives, 21, who is majoring in Middle East studies. "People my age are tired of watching reported news that's slanted to the left or right. We want to look at the news without seeing a political affiliation."

Positioning itself as an even-handed, globally respected news source is a branding tactic that Al Jazeera America's leaders believe will appeal to the college-age demographic - students 18 to 24 years old - that networks are increasingly catering to.

"There is so much interest in this young demographic, and our core competitive advantage is appealing to them. They are global thinkers interested in international news," Ehab Al Shihabi, interim chief executive of the company, said on a conference call last week.

Al Jazeera America President Kate O'Brian agreed, calling the news channel "groundbreaking" for an American media market saturated with pundits and sensationalized reporting.

"From a digital perspective we are very competitive," O'Brian said. "We are not infotainment."

Pointing to the programming schedule, O'Brian and Al Shihabi said Al Jazeera America will deliver fact-based, in-depth reporting that includes programs especially geared toward younger viewers.

Monday through Saturday will feature The Stream, which will use social media and online resources, and Sundays will air both TechKnow, a 30-minute program devoted to the most important scientific discoveries, as well as a documentary series titled Fault Lines.

Al Jazeera America's studio is based in Manhattan and has established 12 bureaus in cities nationwide.

Jack Doppelt teaches journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University, which has a satellite school in Qatar where Al Jazeera is originally based.

"On Northwestern's campus, Al Jazeera has wedged its way into where (journalism students) would most like to work," Doppelt says.

In his view, the major differences between Al Jazeera and its rival news organizations are its British style of reporting and its focus on covering places and populations that largely go under-reported.

"Catering to a sophisticated youth market is what media companies should be doing but they have been very, very slow to do this in the U.S.," Doppelt says. "They have to or they'll die."

One example of an alternative global media source that has gained favor with many college students and recent graduates is Vice, which began in 1994 as a monthly newsmag in Montreal and has expanded into digital channels, television production, a record label and agency for feature films.

Documenting controversial and rare stories - from arms markets in Pakistan to a feud between a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and a local gang in Memphis - Vice magazine alone boasts a 1.2 million circulation and, according to its media kit, enjoys a 100% pickup rate among an audience mostly 30 years old and younger.

If Al Jazeera America can report outside the bounds of typical news fare and offer a different, "more substantive news diet," it could be just what an educated, sophisticated public wants, University of Southern California journalism professor Philip Seib wrote in an email.

"The public may be tired of Lindsay Lohan and cop stories," Seib wrote. "I hope that the news audience is not as stupid as news executives seem to believe it to be."

Al Jazeera America's televised format could also help attract a demographic that largely chooses to get the news from a television screen. A July Gallup poll showed that about half of people surveyed ages 18 to 29 still prefer television as their main news source.

When it comes to international news, the numbers are even better for a network with a reporting focus like Al Jazeera America. According to a 2011 University of Nebraska-Lincoln study, nearly 70% of that same demographic prefers television as a medium for reporting international news.

Still, Al Jazeera America faces an uphill battle as it attempts to compete with American news networks that have spots on Time Warner Cable and other major outlets. Time Warner Cable dropped Current TV, whose place the new network will take, when Al Jazeera bought Current in January, though the two companies are now in "active discussions" to reach a new agreement. When it launches today, Al Jazeera America will appear in just 48 million homes, and there's no guarantee that young people will seek it out.

Joseph Sacks, 20, is an American student familiar with the news organization. He says it is especially helpful in documenting the world beyond the West, but he says he is skeptical of how well it can shift its focus on the U.S.

"How Al Jazeera will report on American stories will be interesting to watch, but I doubt I will rely on their network for news in the same way I do for American news outlets," the Brown University junior says.

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