When Al Jazeera bought Current in January for $500 million, the Qatar-based news network announced that Al Gore's little-watched cable operation would be turned into Al Jazeera America, which would compete with CNN and Fox. Al Jazeera America is now dealing with a stack of 12,000 resumés.
Could it possibly be? New jobs in journalism? Grown-up jobs offering living wages and old-fashioned benefits? The metaphor writes itself: across desolate sweeps of empty, burning sands, an oasis is glimpsed in the distance!
"We may be the only people hiring," says Stan Collender, an Al Jazeera spokesman in Washington, D.C. This is only slight hyperbole. Collender says the network is hiring "experienced—and in many cases very senior—journalists and production staff." Al Jazeera America has posted 104 job openings, he says, and the eventual number of new hires will be even higher. The new network is expected to launch in July.
For years journalism has done one thing well: eliminate jobs. A couple of weeks ago ten more were lost when NBC News shut down EveryBlock, a website delivering hyperlocal news to Chicago and other American cities. "It wasn't a strategic fit with our growth strategy," said an NBC News official.
I reported this unhappy development on the Reader's blog, the Bleader, and promptly got an e-mail from a Nishith Sharma bringing cheerier news. "I am a co-founder of Frrole, a fast growing local news app that has many times been called the future of news," said Sharma, writing, it turned out, from Bangalore, India. "With the news of Everyblock shutting down all around, I find it [the] right context and time to introduce Frrole to you."
The introduction was entirely necessary. I had never heard of Frrole, though it claims to provide news tailored to more than 50 cities in six countries, with 33 of those cities—Chicago included—in the U.S. Yet such are its efficiencies of operation that Frrole's staff still consists of the three founders in Bangalore plus a few temps and pals. (Frrole means "exploration" or "discovery" in Punjabi.) Sharma described Frrole to me as a "social local newspaper built on top of Twitter." Its computers and algorithms analyze millions of tweets to establish what local stories are being buzzed about and linked to, sort out the results into categories such as business, sports, and entertainment, and display them online.
"While both Everyblock and Frrole are local news providers," Sharma went on, "Frrole has a much superior and self-sustaining business model, owing to its negligible cost of production and a unique mix of news source." (The emphasis was his.)
Sharma boasted: "Local news products fail because of high cost of content production. For Frrole however, this cost is almost zero. Why—because the content is coming from people themselves."
He gave me Frrole's version of a news scoop: There were protests in New Delhi, a girl tweeted about her arrest, and the tweet wound up on Frrole "much before any mainstream media could cover it." This, said Sharma, is Frrole's "ultimate objective, free information flow—a newspaper by the people, for the people."
The Current TV staff "was furious that their leader [Gore] could sell them out to the Emir of Qatar, who owns and funds Al Jazeera with his country’s ample oil revenue."—Right-wing website the Foundry
Alas, he'd caught me on a bad day. My focus wasn't on the Lincolnian virtues of people's journalism, splendid as those surely are. I was wondering where new jobs might come from. Clearly, Frrole wasn't designed to provide them.
Sharma's colleague Amarpreet Kalkat, originator of the Frrole concept, pretty much agrees. "Our bootstrapped nature still does not allow us to get into a standard 'hire' mode yet" is how his e-mail puts it. Yet he holds out a thin thread of hope. For though he "swears by technology/algorithms," he knows human judgment is occasionally useful. "90% algorithms, 5% community and 5% editor control—this is what we think a good ratio could be." Furthermore, "none of us are media guys, and we do realize what a big gap that is if we really want to make a dent in the way news discovery works." So sooner or later someone will have to join the payroll who knows something about journalism.
In the meantime, the line about the "high cost of content production" stamps Frrole as an alternative not merely to dinosaurs like the Sun-Times and Tribune but to any news medium old or new that assumes an obligation to produce original news. Take, for example, Mike Fourcher's centersquarejournal.com and roscoeviewjournal.com. Fourcher suspended operations at these north-side Chicago neighborhood sites in January. By MSM standards Fourcher ran them for a song, but by Frrole standards they cost a fortune. Writers and editors and original reporting were all part of the mix, and he couldn't sell enough ads to keep going.
Now Fourcher's got a new battle plan. It involves raising $10,000 in "individual memberships" (aka donations) and recruiting two "volunteer general managers" and a "small group of contributors to fill in content on a volunteer basis." Fourcher's digital news operation is far different from Frrole structurally and philosophically, but they're virtually identical in offering no relief from unemployment.
The journalists who have lost their jobs in the last few years can be numbered in the tens of thousands. According to the Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds, American newspapers alone have lost 15,000 full-time professional news jobs since 1997, nearly 30 percent of the jobs those papers had to begin with.
Collender isn't directly involved with Al Jazeera's hiring; he works for a Washington, D.C., PR firm, and Al Jazeera America is a client. But about a dozen people he knows have asked him personally about working there. Some are TV producers, others editors and on-air talent. About a third had lost their jobs recently; the others were working but felt uneasy. "They're looking at Al Jazeera as a very, very good organization with a solid operation," says Collender.
Any squeamishness about working for a news operation headquartered in Qatar? "In the journalistic profession, Al Jazeera has an extraordinarily high reputation," says Collender. "People who dislike or distrust it have never seen it."
Al Jazeera America intends to open bureaus or offices in 12 American cities. Chicago will become a "major bureau" covering the city and doubling as Al Jazeera's "midwest hub," Collender tells me. By mid-April he expects a bureau chief to be chosen. He's not sure how big the staff will be, but "we're not talking about just two or three people."
According to right-wing website the Foundry, the Current TV staff "was appalled at meeting their new bosses, furious that their leader [Gore] could sell them out to the Emir of Qatar, who owns and funds Al Jazeera with his country's ample oil revenue. … Whatever is left of Al Gore's veneer as environmental guru has surely evaporated as a result of this deal."
Collender wasn't at that meet-and-greet, but he tells me he's interacted with a lot of the holdover Current staff and they're journalists, not "ideologues." Al Jazeera "inherited a staff of 150 people," he says, "and almost all have stayed." In better times, I suppose more of them might have acted on whatever indignation they actually felt. In better times, that stack of 12,000 resumes would be a lot shorter.