The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

picture by Evanchill

Yesterday Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, wrote an interesting piece: “At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn`t the West?”.

“Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality. Quantcast U.S. and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center – that is shaping the future of the region” Khanfar says.

I cannot but agree with him. Few days ago, in my post “Tripoli, una gita di mille anni fa” (in Italian), I was discussing the same issue, the blindness of the West, particularly Europe and my own country, Italy (which enjoyed in the past a great deal of soft power in the Region and a cultural proximity with Arabs that maybe only Spain and Greece have among EU countries). We had a great opportunity which was the Euro-Mediterreanean framework and we wasted it, doing partnerships with the wrong people, “supporters of the Arab regimes” as Wadah cleverly points out. We saw the rising influence of social networks and some of us, mostly academic researchers with no real influence on institutional policies, spent years and years trying to convince EU institutions that those were the right folks to discuss with, the young blood of the new Arab generation. But sine we are ourselves “too young” (at least for EU parameters) nobody paid too much attention to our words, taking us as “kids” playing with the latest technology tool.

The same happened much longer before with TV stations. I remember when I first visited Al Jazeera, back in 2000, and then started to write articles and a book about the channel. It took years and years of work and public talks to have the EU elites starting to take this station “seriously” and not being just scared by it.

Today, 10 years  after 9/11, the situation has completely changed. Al Jazeera has been in touch with “the street” as Wadah points out, and was able to catch up with the changing going on in the Region. Al Jazeera is a young station. Khanfar himself is young and was able to build up a team of youngsters in the New Media Department that is super-professional. People like Mohamed Nanahbay and Mooed Ahmad, with their teams at Al Jazeera Arabic and English, have been working since 2006 to build what Al Jazeera achieves today.

We can criticize the channel`s editorial policy, disagree with some of its programmes, dislike its “incendiary” style, but we cannot deny the professional way the channel has been building relations with the people during the years. That`s it: Al Jazeera has not dealt with Arabs as audiences, but as its “people”. It has empowered them to express their opinions, send their messages, join online forum and chats, post videos, build the new brand identity of the channel all together.

People, mostly in the West, are surprised of the channel popular success during the last Egyptian uprising and now with Libya. There`s nothing to be surprised about pictures like the one Evanchill has published. People feel proximity with Al Jazeera, and new media has played a big role in this. And the way Al Jazeera has been using new media since 2006 is incredibly clever and professional. I wouldt be surprised at all: I would call this “investment”.

Al Jazeera has invested in new media since 2006 and this success is just the result of a professional work done during years and years. As much as 9/11 coverage in Afghanistan was the result of an investment done since the beginning of the channel, in 1996, by building a network of contacts and opening offices in crisis zones.

9/11 coverage didnt come out of the blue. It was just the result of an investment.

The idea of “investing” in something was once very close to Western mentality. It seems that now, mostly in the EU, this is gone. And none of the Arabic language stations that we have in Europe has ever thought of building a relation with its Arab audiences and dealing with them as people, not as numbers.

Al Jazeera did, and that`s the secret of its successful coverage of the Arab uprisings. It did it so well that this was helpful to reach out to Western audiences too.

There was -and there still is- a big campaign in the US, appeared also on Twitter and called #DemandAlJazeera. The channel New media team is organizing meet-ups all over America, and many articles are  being published everywhere in the US to demand the availability of the channel via cable.

And this might be Al Jazeera`s latest success: few days ago it was publicly announced that the channel is in talks with Comcast, the largest US cable distributor.

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2 thoughts on “The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

  1. Pingback: Per capire le rivoluzioni, e Al Jazeera : invisiblearabs

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